Dressed to – ECG

17. October 2006

Put on a T-shirt, measure and record your cardiac activities. That is just how simple an ECG works - the patient does not have to be wired any more. High tech clothing for medical use are gaining ground.

The Alpine tinkerers are known for putting their bets on finesse. But, compared to the old days, when clocks and chronometers became a symbol of Swiss technical arts, they might win patients' hearts with high tech gear for medical use in the future – and are promising a billion Euro market.

Because intelligent and functional textiles will not only dispense medication in previously defined quantities. Today they already take over relevant monitoring functions – for example as a portable ECG.

Together with partners in the sports wear- and embroidery industry, a team of researchers around Markus Weder of the Material Research Institute EMPA, developed a T-shirt made of conductible fibers. The "kicker": Several different textile electrodes are distributed across the T-shirt, which is skintight. Those electrodes were applied with a special embroidery technique and are able to record the patient's cardiac activities. This registered information is sent to a microchip which transmits the data via radio signal to a portable diagnostic device.

"This way, the signals of an electrocardiogram can be recorder wireless, to monitor for example long-term cardiac patients. In order to correctly diagnose heart problems, but also to control athletes during and after their "exploits", a gapless ECG over a longer period of time is absolutely essential", as the EMPA was reasoning at the introduction of this unique project – and promptly won this year's KTI Medtech-Award, a 10,000 Swiss Francs price, with their innovative idea.

Tremendous application potential

The price is hot. Because functional textiles, as Weders' T-shirt, augur a gigantic market. Whether we are talking textile material with shape memory for implants, or self entwisting fibers, nano-coated wound dressings or what about shirts with integrated electronics to monitor essential body functions – you name it – the list is nearly endless.

It doesn't come as a surprise, that even beyond the Swiss Alps, the industry moves. While many manufacturers of textiles cry about cheap merchandise from China, the republic is slowly – almost without notice – rising to become the world market leader in high tech clothing. Round about 40 percent of the locally manufactured textiles are in the field of technical textiles – tendency upward.

Here, about 13 percent are medical- and hygienic textiles "promising an extreme increase over the next few years" as Bayern Innovativ, the Society for Innovation and Science Transfer of the Free State of Bavaria in Germany attested just recently. The doers from Germany are co-operating with experts all over the world via a specifically established networking platform: The "Network Textile Innovations" spans about 800 companies and institutes in 11 countries. Scientists of the European Space Agency ESA realized the potential of those new textiles. Already a few years ago, about 100 researchers of the textile industry, invited by the space elite, met with colleagues from biomedicine and information technology (IT) in the French town of Lille for a brainstorming. Before that, the European Commission had invited to a workshop and detected in smart textiles a "way to maintain health in Europe! Not without reason – as some practical examples show.

At today's stage…

  • "Mammagoose-Pyjamas" for infants and toddlers, equipped with sensors, can give warning of SIDS (Sudden Infant Deaths
  • special "Life Belts" women wear during pregnancy giving alert in case of irregularities of the foetus
  • especially manufactured jackets monitor the body function of their wearers
  • so-called SMA textile stents measure the bloodflow through the artifical vasodilatation via integrated chips

Just how complex biomedical clothing can be used, shows the example of the chip specialist Infineon in Munich: As an alternative to rechargeable batteries, the group is researching on thermo generators using the body heat of the wearer to generate electricity. Meanwhile, an independent company named Micropelt – as a spin off – has grown out of this joint research project with Infineon and the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Metrology (IPM) in Freiburg. Here scientists are now refining and optimizing of the high tech suits.

That way, not only medical monitoring T-shirts without any external power supply could be manufactured. Space suits could be tailored transforming body heat to electricity – thanks to biomedical, intelligent clothing – astronauts could be their own power suppliers, when taking a walk in space.

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