LOPEC 2021: Experiencing printed electronics up close
Lightweight, thin, flexible and stretchable: These properties make organic and printed electronics the ideal choice for medical monitoring systems that fit closely on the skin like a band-aid. In these times of the pandemic, such new developments are particularly in demand. At the LOPEC Conference which will take place online from 23 to 25 March 2021, Prof John A. Rogers from the U.S. Northwestern University will provide information about the technology. In an interview, he outlined the specific advantages of printed electronics and presented innovations from his laboratory.
Professor Rogers, what are you currently researching?
Our focus is on the development of soft electronics as interfaces to biological systems, with an eye toward technologies that can improve human health.
What are the benefits of organic and printed electronics for medical applications?
We are expecting better outcomes at lower costs, available to all. The key advantages are in form factors—thin geometries, low weight, mechanical flexibility and stretchability—that interface to tissues of the body, such as the skin, in a seamless manner. Thanks to these properties, printed electronics are compatible with the soft, curved, and dynamic surfaces of the human body. In close contact with the skin, they form an ideal interface for diagnostics and therapies.
The Corona pandemic is a particular challenge for healthcare systems worldwide. How and with which products can organic and printed electronics help here?
When the pandemic began to spread in the US in March last year, we were asked by our medical community to participate in projects oriented around improving the health and safety of patients and front-line health workers. These involved monitoring systems that sit directly on the skin and are customised to track the key symptoms of Covid-19, i.e. fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
You then developed a sensor system for the monitoring of Covid-19 patients. How does it work?
The devices resemble band-aids designed to adhere to the base of the neck at a location known in medical terms as the suprasternal notch. Integrated into the patch are clinical-grade temperature sensors and accelerometers that detect subtle vibrations, for example. The patch continuously captures a range of conventional vital signs, such as body temperature, respiratory rate and heart rate, but also signatures of the disease itself—coughing, respiratory sounds, activity levels and, indirectly, the rate of aerosol production.
Is the patch in use yet?
Yes, we have deployed it on more than 500 patients and healthcare workers since last March to monitor the progression of the disease and early signs of infection, respectively, both in the clinic and at home.
Your research results also drive innovations outside the medical sector. Which products incorporate developments from your laboratory?
Our technology serves as the foundation for various medical and non-medical commercial applications that we have developed together with the industry. One example is the small wearable UV sensor launched by La Roche Posay from the L'Oréal Group as part of their products “My Skin Track UV” and “MY UV Patch”. Our technology is also incorporated in the “Gx Sweat Patch” from Gatorade. The Sweat Patch is a sweat analysis patch that measures electrolyte loss. Health monitoring products from US companies Sibel Health, Sonica, Medidata and Rhaeos also incorporate our technology.
And what can we look forward to in the future?
We see major opportunities in clinical-grade medical monitoring systems. The next generation of these wearable devices will make remote care easier—both in industrialised countries and in the world's less developed countries. In this area, we are collaborating with start-ups and with large companies such as Procter & Gamble and Dräger. For other work, we receive support from foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation and Save the Children, or industry initiatives such as Merck for Mothers.
As part of the LOPEC Conference, you will give a plenary lecture. What are you going to talk about?
I will focus on thin electronic and microfluidic devices that interface with the surface of the skin and continuously monitor various biophysical and biochemical markers of health status. I will present some of the foundational ideas in this area but will then focus primarily on applications and areas of use with an emphasis on the monitoring of premature and newborn infants and their mothers. I will also comment on our work in the context of Covid-19.
What are your hopes for the LOPEC Conference?
I am looking forward to hearing from leading companies and researchers in this dynamic field. I want to gain a better understanding of the trends and emerging technical capabilities. And, of course, I hope to identify additional possibilities for partnerships and collaboration.
The lecture “Soft Skin-Interfaced Electronics for Clinical-Grade Health Monitoring” by Prof John A. Rogers will be held live on 25 March from 9:40am to 10:00am (CET) during the Plenary Session of the LOPEC Conference. It will also be available on demand after the session.
Caption: Prof John A. Rogers from Northwestern University (photo: John A. Rogers)