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Making medical wearable devices safer, with spider silk and nature

January 7, 2019

 

Many of us do not want to turn out like Anakin Skywalker from Episode III of Star Wars, who was tragically fated to become the Darth Vader we know today, who seems part robot, part human. In the real world today, healthcare innovations include wearable electronic medical devices; that are used to monitor our internal health.

 

Some of us may feel alarmed about the increased computerisation of our bodies through these newly emerging medical sensing technologies; however, is Darth Vader a realistic metaphore for this concern?

 

 

Probably it’s just a little dramatic, but maybe it represents the concern the public are showing for these medical technologies, particularly regarding patient safety. Here, we discuss how innovations are underway which aim to address some of these concerns by designing safer and more compatible wearable medical products, inspired by forms in nature.

 

While the medical industry is introducing electronic sensors to help monitor our health, these devices appear promising as devices that can be easily placed on our skin as wearable devices (wearables), or even in our stomach, as pills that can be swallowed. The sensors in these devices can measure what is going on in our bodies, such as heart rate, and blood chemistry. This might sound like something from a sci-fi movie (like Star Wars..) but this is a newly emerging trend which we might start to see becoming part of our day-to-day life. 

 

So that these technologies can be durable, there are extensive developments underway in their systems and materials. To ensure the wearables can be attached to our skin, they require advanced adhesives, that need to be durable, flexible and breathable. This is necessary so that the devices can maintain skin-to-skin contact under stressed conditions, like while the user is swimming or cycling. 

 

Implants require appropriate materials to be used for durability and flexibility on the body. These are often made from crude-oil derived products, and as a result, can cause physical complications. Problematically, the body may interpret the implant as a foreign object, and trigger an unwanted immune response.

 

So how can we make implants that are safer for our bodies?

 

Biomimicry is the process of using nature's forms and processes as a reference to create more sustainable designs. Researchers are using biomimicry to design safer, and improved wearable devices in healthcare. 

 

There are cutting-edge developments underway which enhance compatibility of implants and wearables with our bodies.

 

For example, synthetic spider silk was inspired by the useful natural fibre material that is spider silk itself. Synthetic spider silk was developed in a recent innovation that features a thin coating taken from bioengineered silk. In numerous studies, synthetic silk has shown its potential to create more flexible and sensitive sensors. 

 

How does this work, you ask?

Synthetic spider silk proteins can resemble biological components in our body, so are more complimentary to our systems, and promote compatibility when used in implants. Biologically compatible materials like these may not only be beneficial for medical treatments, but also for promoting sustainability and protecting the environment. 

 

Now, let's reflect on natural spider silk again. The below video features nice summary of natural spider silk and it's hidden strength, that has inspired innovations in material science.

 

If you haven't already, you can find out about further research inspired by nature, by subscribing to NatureVolve by free here, to receive free copies of our digital magazine.

 

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