Smartphones, smartwatches, and smart electrocardiograms. How about a smart bandage?

This image features a prototype of a smart bandage equipped with temperature and pH sensors (lower right) printed directly onto the surface of a thin, flexible medical tape. You also see the “brains” of the operation: a microprocessor (upper left). When the sensors prompt the microprocessor, it heats up a hydrogel heating element in the bandage, releasing drugs and/or other healing substances on demand. It can also wirelessly transmit messages directly to a smartphone to keep patients and doctors updated.

While the smart bandage might help mend everyday cuts and scrapes, it was designed with the intent of helping people with hard-to-heal chronic wounds, such as leg and foot ulcers. Chronic wounds affect millions of Americans, including many seniors [1]. Such wounds are often treated at home and, if managed incorrectly, can lead to infections and potentially serious health problems.

With these ideas in mind, a research team, partially funded by NIH, went to work. The team was led by Sameer Sonkusale, Tufts University, Medford, MA, Ali Khademhosseini, University of California, Los Angeles, and Babak Ziaie, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. What these researchers all have in common is that their labs are dedicated to exploring ways that miniaturized and flexible electronics can improve medicine.

Credit: Tufts University, Medford, MA

The team set out to design a smart bandage that offered real-time wound monitoring and tailored treatment delivery. They’ve worked for years to devise the needed components, from flexible heaters that warm a drug-releasing hydrogel to ultra-sensitive pH, oxygen, and temperature sensors capable of detecting signs of infection.

In a paper published recently in the journal Small, the team describes a prototype bandage in which they’ve put all these pieces together with positive initial results [2]. The next step will be to test its use to promote wound healing, first in animals and then in people.

Sonkusale says these smart bandages aren’t particularly costly to produce. Researchers print the required electronic sensors onto the flexible tape using a process similar to screenprinting a T-shirt. The more-expensive electronic controller doesn’t need to be replaced often, just the portion of the less-expensive bandage that’s in contact with a wound.

The team doesn’t intend to stop here. They say similar smart devices could be used to help manage many other medical conditions. For example, with some tweaks, such a device could monitor blood sugar levels in a person with diabetes and seamlessly respond by delivering insulin on-demand.