This new wearable could help treat cancer or sports injuries

Engineers at UC San Diego have developed a new stretchable, non-invasive wearable technology that can run continuous, 3D monitoring of deep tissues in humans.
Christopher McFadden
The new technology could improve cancer research and therapy, among other applications.

Jacobs School of Engineering, University of California San Diego 

Researchers from the University of California San Diego have just published findings on developing a new wearable technology that can provide continuous 3D deep-tissue monitoring of humans. The new wearable uses ultrasound to constantly monitor for health problems like tissue stiffness, cancer, and sports injuries, among other ailments.

The wearable technology is stretchable and offers unprecedented non-invasive, three-dimensional imaging of tissues as deep as 1.6 inches (four centimeters) below the surface of human skin at a spatial resolution of 0.02 inches (0.5 millimeters). 

“We invented a wearable device that can frequently evaluate the stiffness of human tissue,” said Hongjie Hu, a postdoctoral researcher in the Xu group and study coauthor. “In particular, we integrated an array of ultrasound elements into a soft elastomer matrix and used wavy serpentine stretchable electrodes to connect these elements, enabling the device to conform to human skin for serial assessment of tissue stiffness," Hu added.

The technology could be used for various applications, including medical research, where it could provide essential data on the progression of diseases such as cancer, which causes cells to stiffen. For athletes, it could also be used to aid in diagnosing and treating injuries to muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues. It could also have important applications in assessing the efficacy and delivery of current treatments for liver and cardiovascular illnesses, as well as certain chemotherapy agents, which may affect tissue stiffness.

With further refinements, this could lead to the development of innovative treatments.

“A layer of elastomer with known modulus, the so-called calibration layer, can be installed on our device to further obtain quantitative, absolute values of tissues' moduli,” said Dawei Song, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and study coauthor. “This approach would allow us to obtain more complete information about tissues' mechanical properties, thus further improving the diagnostic capabilities of the ultrasonic devices,” Song added.

To enhance the array design and fabrication, advanced lithography, pick-and-place, and dicing techniques could also be utilized. This would reduce the pitch and extend the aperture, resulting in higher spatial resolution and a broader sonographic window.

“It would be easier to explore opportunities working with physicians, pursuing potential practical applications in clinics,” said aid Xiaoxiang Gao, another postdoctoral researcher in the group. “Our device shows great potential in close monitoring of high-risk groups, enabling timely interventions at urgent moments,” Gao added.

You can view the study for yourself in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Study abstract:

"Serial assessment of the biomechanical properties of tissues can be used to aid the early detection and management of pathophysiological conditions, to track the evolution of lesions and to evaluate the progress of rehabilitation. However, current methods are invasive, can be used only for short-term measurements, or have insufficient penetration depth or spatial resolution. Here we describe a stretchable ultrasonic array for performing serial non-invasive elastographic measurements of tissues up to 4 cm beneath the skin at a spatial resolution of 0.5 mm. The array conforms to human skin and acoustically couples with it, allowing for accurate elastographic imaging, which we validated via magnetic resonance elastography. We used the device to map three-dimensional distributions of the Young’s modulus of tissues ex vivo, to detect microstructural damage in the muscles of volunteers before the onset of soreness and to monitor the dynamic recovery process of muscle injuries during physiotherapies. The technology may facilitate the diagnosis and treatment of diseases affecting tissue biomechanics."

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