An EU-funded consortium is developing intelligent textiles to measure the health of athletes, diabetics or people working in extreme conditions.
The bio-sensing textile for health management, or Biotex project, will integrate bio-chemical sensor capabilities into textiles to continuously monitor the biochemistry of the user.
Researchers from eight institutions and companies across four countries are developing electric, electrochemical and optical sensor systems that will be embedded into a textile to create sensing patches. These will monitor fluids such as blood, sweat and urine of the wearer throughout the day.
So far, developments in intelligent textiles and health monitoring have mainly focused on physiological measurements such as body temperature, breathing, heart rate and heart regularity. Applications have therefore been targeted at sports and those at risk from a heart attack.
Sweat analysis is potentially a rich source of health-related information but testing is seldom performed because of the difficulty of collecting a sufficiently large fluid sample. Changes in the body of the wearer will be detected using optics, electrochemistry and electricity, through impedance monitoring.
As well as being able to carry out analysis, any garments created must also have good antibacterial qualities.
‘Sensors have been built and have been tested in the lab in vitro,’ said Jean Luprano, BIOTEX project co-ordinator.
‘We have started their integration into textile patches. Among others, one of the challenges is the combination of sweat collection with the sensors — fluid collection is mandatory because of the low concentration of the molecules we want to sense. We will soon have a multi-sensor patch which will allow to sense several elements in parallel.’
The system will provide remote monitoring of vitals signs, diagnostics to improve early illness detection and the detection of metabolic disorders.
The first application of the technology will be to monitor sweat through factors including the pH, salinity and perspiration rate of the user.
The second will be to detect the level of infection of patients suffering from burns to monitor the healing of their wounds.
Finally, the system will be used to monitor blood oxygen saturation levels for medical, sport and even security applications.
The project has total funding of €3.1m (£2.1m) of which half is coming from the EU — BIOTEX is a specific targeted research project of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme.
The consortium includes two research institutes in the field of micro and nanotechnology, two small and medium-sized enterprises from the field of clothing research, development and production, two universities with leadership in wearable bioengineering, and two companies with expertise in the engineering and manufacturing of textiles for demanding markets.
The project is co-ordinated by the Centre Suisse d´Electronique et de Microtechnique (CSEM), an applied research and development company involved in the design and development of micro and miniaturised systems. Other partners include the University of Pisa and the French Atomic Energy Commission.
The next step in the project will be to try out the first multi-parameter sensing-patches on test subjects.
According to the researchers, one of the main attractions of embedding sensors in wearable textiles is that such distributed sensing provides access to 90 per cent of the body surface.
‘The applications which will benefit from the technologies developed in BIOTEX are the ones which will benefit from better knowledge of metabolic processes, moreover in quasi real-time,’ said Luprano.
‘Among others, the consortium aims at applications such as monitoring of metabolism of obese people, sportsmen, wound healing and transplantation monitoring. The advantages of the technologies developed in BIOTEX is that the system will be wearable, in the form of textile patches and later T-shirts.’
However, he stressed that the technology will not aim to replace medical diagnostic methods, even though these are generally invasive.