Primary physicians, specialists and hospital systems around the world have been stretched beyond their normal abilities by the COVID-19 pandemic to diagnose, treat and heal their patients.
This has promoted the use of smart technologies for continuous and real-time monitoring of people’s medical conditions. These are mainly wearable devices that monitor important physiological indicators while allowing the patient to go about his day-to-day routine.
Now, researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa have reported a “breakthrough” expected to make a major difference in this field. The system they developed is based on smart micro-needles, which are fixed inside a sticker (bandaid) that attaches to the skin. The system continuously monitors the patient’s medical condition and sends the data to the patient and his/her doctor.
A team led by renowned chemical engineer and nanomaterials expert Prof. Hossam Haick, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Youbin Zheng, and doctoral student Rawan Omar of the Technion’s Wolfson Faculty of Chemical Engineering and the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute.
The journal Advanced Materials reports on a breakthrough by researchers at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology that is expected to make a significant difference in this field. The article, entitled “A Wearable Microneedle-Based Extended Gate Transistor for Real-Time Detection of Sodium in Interstitial Fluids,” is considered a breakthrough and is featured as the journal’s cover story.
Unlike standard medical needles, which are inserted into the skin up to the blood vessels and nerves and, therefore, cause pain and bleeding, the smart microneedles are short and thin and cross only the first layer of skin. As a result, they are not painful. Despite their length, they monitor important physiological indicators because they reach the interstitial fluid under the skin’s surface and measure different biological and chemical components – including sodium, glucose, and pH level. The transfer of data to the doctor and the patient is done wirelessly through the cloud and IoT (“Internet of Things” technologies).
This continuous monitoring, which allows the early detection of various physiological disorders, is essential for the prevention of diseases and other health complications such as heart and kidney diseases, infectious diseases, and more. It eliminates the need for conventional diagnostics such as blood tests that are currently carried out in the clinic, are painful for the patient and do not provide online or immediate results.
Two of the diseases that the new system monitors are hypernatremia and hyponatremia, both related to the level of sodium in the blood. The first is due to overly high sodium levels, while the second is due to sodium levels that are too low. Both diseases can affect neurological function and lead to various conditions including coma and loss of consciousness, so early monitoring can prevent suffering. Sodium is an essential element found in blood cells and blood fluid and plays a vital role in transmitting signals in the nervous system as well as other biological functions.
“To adapt the technology to daily life,” Haick explained, “we have developed a unique band-aid made of a flexible and soft polymer that stretches and contracts along with the skin and therefore does not interfere with any action whatsoever. Since it is important for us that the system is available to everyone, we made sure to use relatively inexpensive materials, so the final product will not be expensive. The technology we have developed represents a leap forward in diagnosing diseases and continuous physiological monitoring at home and in the clinic.”
Haick, head of the nanomaterials-based devices laboratories and dean of certification studies at the Technion, is a leader in a variety of fields combining nanoelectronics, smart sensing, and others for medical applications, some of which are adapted to the needs of the developing world.
Zheng completed all his degrees at Lanzhou University in China and came to Haick’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow. Omar is currently a doctoral student in the lab and a fellow in the Ariane de Rothschild Women Doctoral Program – a program that supports outstanding female doctoral students towards integrating them into key positions in academia and Israeli society. The study was carried out in collaboration with Prof. Miaomiao Yuan and Rongjun Zhang of the Eighth Affiliated Hospital, Sun Yat-Sen University in China.
Sodium is a prominent prognostic biomarker for assessing health status, such as dysnatremia – an abnormal sodium concentration, which is a relatively common feature of critical illness and affects 10% to 20% of intensive care patients. As of now, detection and monitoring of sodium levels in the human body are carried out by means of laborious and bulky laboratory equipment and/or by offline analysis of various body fluids.
The Haick team’s innovative stretchable, fast-response microneedle extended-gate biosensor that sticks to the skin offers real-time detection of sodium in fluids that fill the spaces between cells. It provides minimally invasive health monitoring along with high sensitivity, low limit of detection, excellent biocompatibility and on-body mechanical stability.
When the device is combined with a wireless-data transmitter and the Internet-of-Things cloud for real-time monitoring and long-term analysis, it could help bring unlimited possibilities for efficient medical care and accurate clinical decision-making, the Technion team said.