Smart Sutures May Tell Post-Op Patients How They’re Doing

July 18, 2016, 12:38 PM UTC
A surgeon (L) and an assistant surgeon operate on a patient a patient during an open-heart surgery in a cardiac surgery unit at the CHU Angers teaching hospital in Angers, western France, on October 24, 2013. The Angers hospital employs 6,000 people including 980 doctors. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD (Photo credit should read JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Jean-Sebastien Evrard — AFP/Getty Images

When a patient is on the operating table, surgeons can monitor what’s going on. But once the patient is sewn up and in recovery, things get murkier. There are implants doctors can use to monitor some bodily functions, but they tend to be expensive and rigid.

A new generation of smart thread may open up a better window into a patient’s post-op status, if researchers at Tufts University, Harvard, and MIT have their way.

They have integrated tiny “nano-scale” sensors, electronics, and “microfluidics” into threads—some made of cotton, some synthetic—that can be sewn or sutured through many layers of tissue. Not only do the threads hold the tissue together, they can gather information on stress, pressure, and temperature within the body and send that information wirelessly to outside equipment, according a release published by EurekaAlert.

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The researchers published a paper on their work at Microsystems & Nanoengineering on Monday.

From the EurekaAlert post, the researchers used

a variety of conductive threads that were dipped in physical and chemical sensing compounds and connected to wireless electronic circuitry to create a flexible platform that they sutured into tissue in rats as well as in vitro. The threads collected data on tissue health (e.g. pressure, stress, strain and temperature), pH and glucose levels that can be used to determine such things as how a wound is healing, whether infection is emerging, or whether the body’s chemistry is out of balance. The results were transmitted wirelessly to a cell phone and computer.

This technique, which requires more research and testing, could bring a new generation of relatively inexpensive sensing and implantable devices to surgical applications.

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Thread, as opposed to other high-tech “substrates,” is easily available, cheap, thin, and flexible and can be “easily manipulated into complex shapes,” lead author Pooria Mostafalu, Ph.D., said in a statement.

Mostafalu was a doctoral student at Tufts when he started this work and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. He is also affiliated with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.