Researchers from Heriot-Watt University are developing pioneering sensors that will enable medical practitioners to better manage how wounds heal.
The small electronic sensors currently being developed can ‘hear’ beneath bandages, and monitor the tiny, microscale mechanical changes that happen to body tissue during the healing process.
Wounds ranging from simple cuts to surgical incisions and burns cost the NHS anywhere between £4.5 billion and £5.1 billion each year. Through groundbreaking new techniques, though, researchers believe that cost savings and improvements to efficiency could be imminent.
The two-year project, which is being supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is led by Dr Michael Crichton, a biomedical engineer at Heriot-Watt.
Dr Crichton explained: “We want to understand what actually happens in a wound. Lots of research has looked at the biological properties of wounds. But we know very little about the mechanics of how wounds heal, especially at the microscale, which is where changes are happening at sub-hair width scales.
“We’re working to create a small sensor that can be embedded in a bandage to measure changes in a wound’s properties without interfering with the process.”
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The tiny sensors will make small mechanical measurements in a similar fashion to how a doctor would ‘prod a lump’, Dr Crichton added. These measurements will provide detailed insights into how body tissue is changing, or even whether a wound requires different treatment methods or dressings.
“At the moment, we judge the progress of wounds on patients’ reports of pain, and how the wound looks to the naked eye of health professionals,” Dr Crichton said. “Our smart sensor will alert the patient and their care team when intervention is needed to make sure the wound heals better, or when it is all progressing nicely under the bandage.”
Although researchers are currently focused on how skin wounds heal, long-term the project’s findings could be applied to other tissues and organs – with the potential for monitoring liver and kidney damage or even cancers.
Dr Crichton said: “Some tissues and organs have the same structural components as skin, so researchers and practitioners in those areas are likely to take a great interest in our project.”
Dr Jenna Cash, a specialist in wound healing immunology from the University of Edinburgh, is also involved in the project.
She said: “This is an innovative, patient-focused research project that addresses the urgent need for us to better understand wounds.
“Our work on the immunological response during healing is reflected in mechanical changes, and anything that combines these has the potential for new therapies in this area.”