Smart wound sensor

Engineers at Heriot-Watt are developing a sensor that will help patients, doctors and nurses manage how wounds heal. 

Wounds cost the NHS £4.5-5.1 billion each year to manage. Burns, diabetic ulcers, caesarean section scars, surgical incisions and simple cuts cause significant pain to patients and their treatment consumes huge clinical resources every year. 

Dr Michael Crichton, a biomedical engineer at Heriot-Watt University, has been awarded £360,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop a microsensor that will detect wound healing by monitoring the tiny, microscale mechanical changes that happen to the body’s tissue. 

Crichton is working with Dr Jenna Cash, a specialist in wound healing immunology from the University of Edinburgh, on the two-year project. 

Dr Crichton said: “We want to understand what actually happens in a wound. Lots of research has looked at the biological properties of wounds, but we know very little about the mechanics of how wounds heal, especially at the microscale, which is where changes are happening at sub-hair width scales. 

“We’re working to create a small sensor that can be embedded in a bandage to measure changes in a wound’s properties without interfering with the process. 

“The sensor will make small mechanical measurements - much like how a doctor would prod a lump - and will tell us how the tissue is changing, or whether the wound needs a different dressing or treatment.

“At the moment, we judge the progress of wounds on patients’ reports of pain, and how the wound looks to the naked eye of health professionals. 

“Our smart sensor will alert the patient and their care team when intervention is needed to make sure the wound heals better, or when it is all progressing nicely under the bandage.”

Dr Jenna Cash said: “This is an innovative, patient-focused research project that addresses the urgent need for us to better understand wounds.  

“Our work on the immunological response during healing is reflected in mechanical changes, and anything that combines these has the potential for new therapies in this area.”

While the team is investigating how skin wounds heal, their findings could be applied to other tissues and organs, like monitoring liver/kidney damage or cancers. Dr Crichton said: “Some tissues and organs have the same structural components as skin, so researchers and practitioners in those areas are likely to take a great interest in our project.”

The project is likely to spark interest from the pharmaceutical industry, where the creams, gels and dressing available for patients and healthcare providers to buy represent a market of billions of dollars. 

The funding announcements comes as Heriot-Watt celebrates its Year of Health, a calendar of engagement that spans schools, communities, businesses and government. Throughout the year, the campaign will highlight the university’s research and the groundbreaking discoveries that are driving innovations in healthcare, diagnosis and treatment. Follow us on Twitter @HeriotWattUni and other social media with #yearofhealth2019. 

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