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Wearable technology meets dermatology


Imagine wearing electronics powerful enough to transdermally measure things like hydration, electrophysiological activity and pulse and cerebral oximetry. But the technology is so thin, breathable, soft and malleable, that you don’t notice it on your skin. It can be on your eyelid, on your lips, over hair. It seamlessly does its job while you live your life without constraint.

Imagine wearing electronics powerful enough to transdermally measure things like hydration, electrophysiological activity and pulse and cerebral oximetry. But the technology is so thin, breathable, soft and malleable, that you don’t notice it on your skin. It can be on your eyelid, on your lips, over hair. It seamlessly does its job while you live your life without constraint.

John A. Rogers, Ph.D., professor of material science and engineering at University of Illinois, and his colleagues are developing this wearable technology and big pharma, dermatology faculty and the beauty industry, including L’Oreal, are studying the technology’s applications and using it to do research

RELATED: Links to study abstracts on the wearable technology

“The goal is really to render electronics, radios, advanced sensors in forms that look and feel like the skin, itself. That’s to enable a kind of intimate level of contact and integration between the device platform and the skin, in a way that can conform to the textures of the skin and follow the motions and the natural processes of the skin without constraint,” Dr. Rogers says.

NEXT: Implications in dermatology 


Studies well underway

He says there are two implications for the wearable technology’s use. One is as a continuous monitoring system, which uses the skin as a window for measuring physiological status and health. The other is as a diagnostic tool with utility in a clinical or hospital environment. The devices would be softly laminated onto the skin to measure critical skin properties, which would help clinicians determine courses of action related to skin disorders, including cancers of the skin, as well as healing of surface wounds or surgical sites.

Murad Alam, M.D., professor of dermatology, otolaryngology and surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, and colleagues have used the electronic bandage technology to better understand wound healing in skin.[i]

RELATED: Nanotechnology accelerates wound healing

“Specifically, we have placed the bandage next to patients' healing wounds after surgery, including both wounds that had been closed with stitches and those that were left to heal by themselves, to understand how conditions at the wounds change over time,” Dr. Alam says. “We know that temperature, tension, and water content of skin changes as wounds heal, and this technology allows us to non-invasively obtain precise information about these and other factors minute by minute and even second by second.”

The technology is patient-friendly and highly accurate, he says.

“For instance, we can tell temperature at the site to within hundredths or thousandths of a degree, a level of accuracy previously only achievable with big and cumbersome temperature detectors,” Dr. Alam says. “As we use the electronic bandages to collect more of this information about small changes during wound healing, we will be better able to understand exactly how wound healing works.  This may, in turn, help us develop better dressings, medicines, and techniques to speed wound healing and improve scars.”

The technology’s potential applications in continuous monitoring, sports and fitness and in beauty-related products are numerous.

“We’re interested in all of them,” Dr. Rogers says.

Dr. Rogers and colleagues are collaborating with L’Oreal on a commercial product (which he can’t yet discuss) and on basic research to study the skin’s properties, like skin stiffness, mechanical properties, hydration level, UV exposure and temperature distribution.

“We’ve explored and developed new sensor modalities that coincide with what L’Oreal feels is important. Part of it is scientific discovery. Part of it is aimed at establishing foundations for measurement protocols that they can use internally in their own research … as they develop new products for the skin,” Dr. Rogers says. “The kinds of systems that they use now are comparable to clinical gold standard measurement interfaces that you would see in hospital settings for hydration, for example. But those [other] devices are big, bulky instruments with lots of disadvantages and measurement limitations.”

There’s also research with the department dermatology at University of Arizona Medical Center, according to Dr. Rogers.

“The work in Arizona was focused on measuring the elastic properties - the stiffness of skin - and mapping that around cancer sites on the skin,” he says.

The assessments from wearable technology could take the place of or be used in conjunction with the physical touching, pinching and poking that dermatologists and other doctors might do now to assess skin stiffness.

NEXT: The tricky part



The tricky part

In essence, the wearable technology gathers the data for transfer to a computer program, where it can be scientifically assessed. Wearers don’t feel the devices - regardless of what they do, functionally or in their daily activities.

“You’re really talking, ultimately, about taking the guts of an iPhone and rendering it into an ultrathin stretchable format that can go on the skin. There are a lot of fundamental challenges in engineering and material science associated with attempts to doing that,” he says. “But we think we’ve made a lot of progress. We can really do some sophisticated things with these devices.”

More published studies coming

Most of the studies going on now with the wearable technology are focused on measuring skin hydration, stiffness, temperature - even sweat. The goal would be to capture sweat or access interstitial fluids from the near surface layers of the skin and do chemical analyses on those fluids.

“That’s a big area for us from a scientific research standpoint,” Dr. Rogers says.

Another focus of research in the area of continuous monitoring is to hone the wireless aspect of the technology and increase its battery life.

“I think the ability to keep the device in place and continuously monitor what’s going on would be a powerful capability to allow a doctor to pick up an early sign of an infection, for example, or any kind of abnormality associated with the healing process, and determine a drug treatment on that basis,” Dr. Rogers says. “That’s a longer term vision. What we’ve done so far is prove the utility of the sensors and the compatibility with the skin, in the context of that wound healing effort. The wireless continuous monitoring mode is next.”


[i] Hattori Y, Falgout L, Lee W, Jung SY, Poon E, Lee JW, Na I, Geisler A, Sadhwani D, Zhang Y, Su Y, Wang X, Liu Z, Xia J, Cheng H, Webb RC, Bonifas AP, Won P, Jeong JW, Jang KI, Song YM, Nardone B, Nodzenski M, Fan JA, Huang Y, West DP, Paller AS, Alam M, Yeo WH, Rogers JA. Multifunctional skin-like electronics for quantitative, clinical monitoring of cutaneous wound healing. Adv Healthc Mater. 2014 Oct;3(10):1597-607.


Links to study abstracts on the wearable technology

More on wound healing, skin research:

Nanotechnology accelerates wound healing

Stem cells, lasers poised to join wound care armementarium

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