As medical technology continues to advance, the lowly bandage continually gets left behind. Sure, it was exciting when Clear Strips bandages were introduced in 1957. And the Liquid Bandage, unveiled in 2002, is nothing to sniff at. But where are our sensor-filled Band-Aids?
They’re coming soon, thanks in part to work being done by Ed Goluch, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Northeastern University. He’s working on a "smart bandage" that can monitor infections and alert patients to their existence. If it goes into production, this will be the next big step in bandage technology.
Goluch was studying how different bacterial cells behave individually—"I was designing sensors to be able to track individual cells, measure how they produce different toxins and compounds at the single-cell level and see how they change from one cell to another and what makes one cell more resistant to an antibiotic," he says—when he came up with the smart bandage idea after speaking to colleagues building other types of sensors.
So Goluch and graduate student Thaddaeus Webster built an electrochemical sensor—produced with the same technology as computer chips—that can detect the presence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacteria that commonly takes advantage of people with compromised immune systems while they’re in the hospital. Left unchecked, it can kill. But the bacteria can be treated by a range of antibiotics, which is where a smart bandage comes in.
"You would be able to say 'This is starting, even though I don’t show any symptoms yet’ on an open wound and that you need to put on a topical antibiotic or start taking a prescription antibiotic," explains Goluch.
This isn’t something that could be easily done with, say, a staph infection. P. aeruginosa is unique—it secretes a specific molecule that can be detected by an electrochemical sensor. Goluch believes that there are other anaerobic species with this type of molecule, but more research needs to be done.
Goluch isn’t the only one working on the smart bandage concept. He explains: "Other groups are thinking about smart Band-Aids, but the majority of their work is more physical, general sensors for things like moisture and pH and not a specific diagnostic that says 'Hey, you have an infection and here’s the bacteria that you’re infected with.'"
So far, Goluch has tested the system with bacteria cultures and sensors. The next step, which he hopes to begin fairly soon, will involve humans and animals. The professor isn’t sure exactly how much the sensor would cost when commercialized, but he believes "it’s simple enough that you’d be able to integrate it in a large volume fairly cheap."