Biosensor Could Lead to Wound Healing, Prevent Amputations

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A post-meeting conversation between researchers at the University of Alberta has led to a project trying to prevent amputations caused by diabetic foot ulcers. The goal of the joint project is to develop and test a biosensor that can be embedded in a wound dressing or used like a swab to analyze the wound and improve healing.

After talking about their research projects, Simon Palfreyman, PhD, an assistant professor in the university's Faculty of Nursing and a wound care expert, and Manisha Gupta, PhD, studying biosensors as part of the Faculty of Engineering, began a collaboration to see whether biosensors, which can be attached to the skin to monitor things like temperature or the presence of germs, will lead to healing of diabetic ulcers.

Palfreyman and Gupta are also collaborating with Douglas Zochodne, MD, director of the Neuroscience & Mental Health Institute and divisional director of neurology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, who has expertise on the nerve damage that makes diabetic foot wounds dangerous.

The sensor will measure up to four variables—likely electrolytes, temperature, pressure, and glucose levels—so that clinicians can monitor progress, detect complications, and determine precise treatments.

"The main thrust is customized medicine tailored for each patient," said Gupta.

"The idea is to get there early when wounds are less complicated and cheaper and easier to treat, rather than when the wound is enlarged and not healing, and issues such as infection are already established," said Palfreyman. "Urgent medical intervention is needed with diabetic foot wounds because they can deteriorate quite quickly."

Diabetic polyneuropathy also slows healing.

"Treating these wounds is like working at the back of a cave with no lights on," said Zochodne,  is director of the Neuroscience & Mental Health Institute and divisional director of neurology. "We don't know the basic biochemistry of what's going on in these wounds and why they don't heal, so this enabling technology that Dr. Gupta has developed has fantastic possibilities."

Existing technology does not allow for localized measurements within wounds, Gupta said. "The novelty of this is we're going to monitor multiple parameters within the real wound environment."

Gupta's team has already developed biosensors to measure pressure, glucose, and ion levels. The transistor-based sensors are 3D printed using biocompatible materials such as gold and organic semiconductors that work well in an aqueous environment and will not be rejected by the body's immune system. The sensors can be as small as ten microns, about one-seventh the width of a human hair.

Gupta envisions also developing an app that would allow patients to monitor their own wound sensors. Palfreyman said the system could be particularly valuable for people living in remote communities who do not have access to in-person clinical care.

Photograph: Gupta holds a flexible biosensor in front of the 3D printer used to print the devices in her lab. The team has developed biosensors to measure pressure, glucose, and ion levels. Photograph by Ryan Whitefield, courtesy of the University of Alberta.