The medical textiles market is growing, serving both health and wellness.
The majority of research and development in smart materials comes from transport. Health and well-being have great need of responsive technologies, so why should medical textiles be one of the smallest sectors of the market? The time and money involved in bringing a product to market are key factors, as well as the cost in time and money to get FDA approval.
In this overview, we look at new developments in textiles and related products, and look forward to the future directions of research and development in the industry.
Proven in textiles
Demographic trends in developed countries indicate that we are living longer, and this has become a focus of textile development, ranging from medical to well-being functionality.
One example, dating back to the late 1990s, would be the use of infrared light, first introduced by Japanese textile manufacturers for use in blankets for the elderly. Infrared light occurs naturally, just outside the visible light spectrum. Medically, it acts as a vasodilator, regulating body temperature, promoting circulation, increasing oxygen levels within tissue and enhancing cell vitality. As a form of light therapy, it is used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, torn muscles and rheumatoid arthritis.
Now that its potential has been extended and the quality and hand of the finished textile has improved, consumer interest has grown. Nilit® and Celliant (Hologenix LLC) have both developed fibers aimed at the wellness market using far-infrared energy. These materials promote wellness in elderly users, improve sleep and help athletes’ muscle recovery after a workout or injury.
Nilit’s Innergy fiber uses far-infrared rays in a nylon 6.6 fabric, with the possibility of adding antibacterial and UV-protective finishes. Celliant uses active minerals that are finely ground and combined with a resin to form the fiber core that can be used on its own or combined with other natural or manmade fibers. This process ensures that the performance lasts the lifetime of the material and the active ingredients do not diminish with washing.
Advances in production technologies are seeing developments in the capabilities of conductive textiles as well as improvements in their drape, handle and overall aesthetic—all important factors for consumer acceptance, particularly in clothing and bedding applications.
Forster Rohner Textile Innovations uses embroidery techniques to create smart textiles that are conductive, with sensors in a network system that provide accurate data readings and comfort for the wearer. The company uses a range of sensors that includes temperature, humidity, pressure, electrostimulation, EEG (electroencephalogram) and ECG (electrocardiogram).
Stretch is a key component of comfort for the wearer; stretchable heated textiles and elastic sensors that do not impede the flow of data are now a commercial possibility.
Proven in products
Advanced textiles—and smart materials in particular—form a significant component in health and wellness products, particularly those designed for the home market rather than hospital care. Wearable technology must be easy to fit and comfortable to wear if it is to be used properly and effectively.
In Germany, BOSANA Medizintechnik GmbH and the Institute of Neuroinformatics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, have developed the tipstim® glove designed to help patients recover use of a hand following a stroke. The high-technology therapy glove uses a pulse generator to stimulate the sensorimotor abilities of the hand. The pulses are transmitted to the fingertips using textile electrodes woven into the glove. The nerve pathways carry these electrical impulses directly to the brain areas responsible for movement of the hand. The direct stimulation of these brain areas allows for a reactivation of areas damaged by the stroke. Clinically tested, it has already received European Medical Device Directive (MDD) approval.
When amputees experience the sensation of still having a missing limb it is referred to as phantom limb syndrome. The patient often feels pain in the limb that is no longer there, which causes particular problems when using a prosthesis. Electromagnetic fields (EMF) have been able to help control this chronic pain, but a special textile was needed to be more useful for amputees.
Farabloc™ is a polyamide and metal-fiber fabric with linenlike tactile qualities. It is able to provide protection for sensitive nerve endings at the stump with an extra shielding effect against high EMF. It can be placed around the area of injury, but it is also made into gloves, socks and jackets, as well as arm, leg and body bands and wraps. Farabloc is produced by the Farabloc Development Corp., based in Coquitlam, B.C., Canada.
Students from Imperial College and the Royal College of Art in London participated in the Rio Tinto Sports Innovation Challenge, where they were asked to develop solutions to allow people who have disabilities to participate in sports. Working in teams, their task was to make a contribution to
Paralympic sports and to the lifestyles of people who have disabilities.
Paraplegic athletes can struggle with undiagnosed injuries in the parts of their bodies with reduced sensation, that may be left untreated. In response to this, one team created BRUISE, a smart injury detection suit that uses a pressure-sensitive film to indicate the severity of an injury. If an area is excessively stressed during an accident, the film will irreversibly change color. The color density indicated varies according to the differing contact pressure levels.
Severe spinal cord injuries can be caused by moving people immediately after an accident has happened. Another student team designed a device that offers flexible support for the spine that aims to keep the patient still as soon as possible after an accident to reduce further injury. It uses a combination of pressure sensors and ultraviolet nontoxic resin to transform from completely flexible to a rigid structure in the first 10 seconds after an accident.
Developed by researchers at the Hohenstein Institute, the world’s first artificial uterus is designed to provide sensory stimulation for babies born prematurely. It recreates the environment of the mother’s womb, providing acoustic stimuli such as the mother’s heartbeat and voice accompanied by a gentle rocking motion. ARTUS, the ARTificial UteruS, received a New Application award at TechTextil in May.
Neonatologists, those who specialize in treating newborn and premature babies, are currently assessing the effectiveness of ARTUS by observing it in use. Research is being led by professor Dirk Höfer, working with industry partners that include Germany-based Beluga-Tauchsport, Global Safety Textiles and M. Zellner GmbH.
President Obama’s $500 million initiative [see “White House launches textile manufacturing initiatives”] to invigorate the U.S. textile industry is a welcome step to encourage innovation and bring back manufacturing to the U.S. However, the needs go beyond strengthening research and increasing intellectual property. For industries such as medical textiles and their end products, this initiative will be limited unless the process of getting products to market is made more accessible, particularly for small start-ups.
The European Union and Australia have rigorous medical approval processes in place that protect—rather than deter—the industry. If the U.S. is to make better use of advances in smart materials and wearable technologies for medical applications, the FDA process must be improved. The alternative is that the new financial incentives will be focused elsewhere, and government, industry and patients could all lose out.
Marie O’Mahony is a professor at Ontario College of Art and Design University, and also curator of the Smarter. Faster. Tougher. sportswear exhibition at DX Museum, Toronto, Ont., Canada.