Feb. 19, 2013
A Smart Garment for a Healthy Future
An interdisciplinary team has created a garment that could revolutionize the treatment of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and disorders.
Dr. Bruce Benjamin dreams of a future where diseases are treated before they become problematic. Whether its cardiovascular diseases such as coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure or respiratory diseases and disorders such as sleep apnea and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, early diagnosis and treatment are key to preventing a life-altering medical event.
"One of the greatest challenges we face in the battle against cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and disorders is identifying at-risk people early so they can begin treatment," says Benjamin, interim vice provost for graduate studies and associate dean for biomedical sciences at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa. "In many cases if a patient is diagnosed early and begins treatment, a catastrophic event like a heart attack can be prevented."
In an effort to make his vision a reality, Benjamin helped bring together a diverse group of researchers to create a Health Smart Garment that will help diagnose patients earlier by monitoring their vital signs for an extended period of time. The group, consisting of researchers in biomedical sciences, industrial engineering and textile science, has been developing a garment that is functional and comfortable to fit the needs of medical professionals and patients in a variety of fields.
"Patients will be able to wear this garment while at home, rather than in the doctor's office or in the hospital," says Benjamin. "It can monitor vital signs over a period of hours or days to give physicians a more accurate picture of how the systems in the body are functioning."
Benjamin's colleague, Dr. Satish Bukkapatnam, professor of industrial engineering and management and the director of the OSU Sensor Networks and Complex Systems Research Lab, has developed a sensor system to go into the garment. Bukkapatnam serves as the principal investigator for an Innovation Corps Grant from the National Science Foundation to help develop the garment for market.
"People are craving a solution for disease diagnosis that is viable and will help solve their medical problems," says Bukkapatnam. "With this technology, patients could be treated for diseases they don't even know they have yet."
Designed for patient comfort and wearability, the garment will give physicians continual assessment of patients and help detect abnormal patterns in heart and breathing rates that are more difficult to discern from traditional tests.
"The whole idea of wearable electronics has unlimited applications in all sorts of different aspects our lives," says Dr. Mary Ruppert-Stroescu, assistant professor of apparel design and textile science. "This project seamlessly integrates technology that monitors vital signs with our fabric to create a very wearable garment."
Ruppert-Stroescu has developed the design of the garment, including selecting a fabric that is comfortable, creating a fit that is comfortable and natural to wear and creating ways for the garment to house the sensors.
"The smart garment integrates the sensor technology developed by our team right into the fabric," says Ruppert-Stroescu. "We have strategically placed the electrodes, circuitry and circuit boards so they are easy to wear and patients don't end up tangled in wires and cords."
Data could be collected and stored in the garment or transported wirelessly to a collection center where a physician could then download and analyze the signals.
While the garment could be applied for use in diagnosing a number of diseases, the team decided to focus their research on diagnosing sleep apnea.
"We chose sleep apnea as the first target entry point in the device market because the United State is experiencing a surge in the number of individuals with sleep disorder breathing and these individuals are not being screened for sleep apnea," says Dr. Brek Wilkins, post-doctoral researcher at OSU-CHS. "About 25 percent of all Americans have sleep disorder breathing, but due to high (insurance) deductibles, long waiting times and in-clinic comfort levels, they won't seek treatment at a sleep study clinic."
Wilkins says the Smart Garments would allow patients to sleep comfortably in their own homes.
"It would give individuals with possible sleep apnea an alternative path around the barriers to and in-clinic diagnosis," he says.
In addition to the NSF grant, the team has also received a grant from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology to further develop the garment.
"These grant programs have really taken us outside of our research labs and helped us ask the right questions to the find the answers we needed to transition our technology from the lab and into the marketplace so we can help people," says Wilkins. "Being in the marketplace accomplishes something just about every scientist wants to do -- help people and have a technology that gets used by many."
The Smart Garment project is an example of OSU researchers' interdisciplinary approach toward scientific breakthroughs that can have a global impact.
"Our faculty are working together across disciplines to take an innovative approach to address common issues and come up with creative solutions," says Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa and OSU Center for Health Sciences. "The smart garment project holds the key to revolutionizing the treatment of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and disorders and is changing the way we think about patient care."
While Benjamin leads the charge on the medical research, he stresses that the development of the Health Smart Garment would not have been possible without all the members of interdisciplinary research team.
"The project is so big that no one discipline, no one individual can actually solve the problem," says Benjamin. "You need the theoretical people who understand how the body works, the engineers who can take the ideas that we have and create the tools to monitor and interpret the signals from the body, and the design people who can create a garment that somebody would even decide to put on."
While the team members are working to perfect the prototype for diagnosing sleep apnea, they are already looking at other ways to apply the technology.
"There is a lot of potential with this technology, whether it's for critical care in hospitals or for patients in rural Oklahoma who don't have access to the same resources that are available in larger communities," says Benjamin. "This could potentially be used by everyone."
This story originally ran in the 2013 issue of Vanguard.