Smart Sutures Integrate Microfluidics and Nanosensors

New three-dimensional flexible platform makes it possible to envision its use for more complex shapes

2 min read
“Smart” thread in vitro
Photo: Nano Lab/Tufts University

The role of nanomaterials in textiles has evolved from comparatively simple hydrophobic materials to the creation of textile electrodes that leverage graphene and the weaving of nanowires into t-shirts to make them into supercapacitors.

Now researchers at Tufts University have taken nanomaterials for wearable systems to a new level with the development of a “smart” thread consisting of nanoscale sensors and microfluidics. The thread could be used in sutures, providing critical information in medical treatments.

In research described in the journal Microsystems and Nanoengineering, the Tufts researchers first took raw cotton thread and coated it with carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and other conductive materials. They then took this array of conductive threads and dipped them into physical and chemical sensing compounds.

To produce strain sensors, elastic threads (polyurethane threads) were coated with CNTs and a polymer. The polymer improved the mechanical integrity of the conductive layer and reduced the occurrence of delamination. For pH sensors, the working electrode was made from nano-infused threads coated with carbon and another type of conducting polymer that provided biocompatibility, high electrical conductivity, and superior stability in electrolytes.

The treated threads were all connected to wireless electronic circuitry so that when they were used as sutures, it was possible to collect data on tissue health.

When the tissue health measurements—including temperature, strain, and pressure—are combined with glucose and pH measurements, it becomes possible to determine how a wound is healing or whether an infection is developing. All this data is sent wirelessly to a computer.

“We think thread-based devices could potentially be used as smart sutures for surgical implants, smart bandages to monitor wound healing, or integrated with textile or fabric as personalized health monitors and point-of-care diagnostics,” said Sameer Sonkusale, a corresponding author on the paper and director of the interdisciplinary Nano Lab at the Tufts School of Engineering, in a press release.

While the initial research appears hopeful, the researchers do concede that more work needs to be done, most notably in the area of long-term biocompatibility.

Nonetheless, the work does represent a watershed moment in the development of substrate structures for implantable devices. Up till now, the structures have been limited to two dimensions, restricting their use only to flat tissue such as skin. However, this new three-dimensional flexible platform makes it possible to envision its use for more complex shapes such as those needed for fractures and orthopedic implants, which have complex 3-D structures.

Sonkusale added: “The ability to suture a thread-based diagnostic device intimately in a tissue or organ environment in three dimensions adds a unique feature that is not available with other flexible diagnostic platforms.”

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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