The U.S. military is developing a bandage-like sensor that analyzes biomarkers from sweat to conduct lab tests, instead of relying on traditional blood draws that involve sticking needles into veins.
The usual way of collecting blood samples is by inserting a needle into a vein, effective but hardly pleasant, even for tough soldiers.
Now, the U.S. military is looking into how to avoid those needle sticks altogether.
Researchers at the United States Air Force (USAF) is developing a wearable sensor that looks similar to an ordinary bandage but works much smarter -- it is capable of analyzing sweat for diagnostic purposes.
The obvious advantage of such a tool is that it is painless, but another benefit is practicality.
"We're trying to do a couple of things,"
Dr. Josh Hagen, research group leader at the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said in an interview with USA Today.
"We're trying to eliminate giant blood draw. We're also trying to get the answers a lot quicker to the people who need them than they are getting them now. We're talking minutes or in real time,"
Time is crucial in the battlefield and disaster areas, and that is where the military sees the advantage of using wearable sensors.
Medics could just cover a small area of the skin with these “smart” bandages instead of grappling with needles, tourniquets and lab kits while dodging bullets in a war zone.
How exactly these bandages would work is still being perfected.
The very basic mechanism involves wearable sensors that analyze the biomarkers contained in sweat, similar to components seen in a traditional blood sample.
But unlike traditional lab testing which requires blood samples to be taken to a far-away lab, the wearable sensors in these bandages can provide military personnel with immediate results.
For example, wounded combatants or disaster evacuees can get assessed instantaneously in the field without having to wait until after transport to medical facilities.
A medic can transmit information gathered by these wearable sensors via smartphones, then a remote computer can process the data and transmit back the appropriate diagnosis.
Armed with the lab results, medics can then act more swiftly, save time, and save lives
While such a wearable sensor that analyze biomarkers is years away from actual use, Hagen said similar wearable sensors that measure simpler things such as hydration level is closer to reality.
"Certainly if you work out you're cognizant of your hydration level,"
Hagen told USA Today.
"There's no good way to know. You might feel light headed. Looking at urine color is really the only qualitative kind of metric to do that. That I think is more near term, on the order of years or less."
Like similar wearable sensors, the bandage would likewise be capable of checking vital signs like heart rate and breathing, again only by analyzing a soldier’s perspiration.
The developments of flexible electronic components and biomedical-based nanotechology are making it possible to have skin-worn sensors to monitor vital signs and deliver drugs without the hassle of traditional venipuncture.
Other branches of the U.S. military is keen on developing wearable sensors for their personnel.
In particular, its Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is co-developing an integrated biosensor platform with private contractors. Wearable sensors and devices developed from the project will be capable of measuring vital signs and point-of-care diagnostics.
Work on biosensor bandages is consistent with the military’s push for human centric sensor systems aimed at improving training and enhancing the performance of soldiers.
Like many other technologies, these projects may ultimately find its way beyond the military domain and into commercial applications.