New research at the University of Alberta has the potential to prevent lower limb amputations for people with diabetes.
The project, recently funded by the Kaye Competition, involves biosensors in bandages to detect signs of wound infection before it’s too late.
According to Alberta Health Services, up to 20 per cent of people with diabetes develop a foot ulcer, and 56 per cent of those become infected.
More than one thousand Albertans a year have lower limbs amputated due to complications related to diabetes.
Simon Palfreyman, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, said the idea for the project was sparked by a chance meeting with Manisha Gupta, an associate professor in the Faculty of Engineering. The biosensors she was making were exactly what he had been searching for.
“She said, ‘Oh yeah, any bodily fluid… we can measure stuff.’ I said, ‘What about wounds?’” Palfreyman recalled to Global News.
“I’m always looking for people in the medical and the health side who can actually tell me what is useful,” laughed Gupta.
The collaboration also involves Douglas Zochodne, a professor of neurology at the University of Alberta.
Zochodne provided expertise in diabetic neuropathy, which affects nearly half of people with diabetes within 10 years of diagnosis. High blood sugar levels can damage nerves, often in the legs and feet.
“(Patients) can’t feel injuries to their feet. So they develop a wound… and it can become infected relatively easily,” said Palfreyman.
“Because that infection becomes so embedded in the bone, the only treatment is to actually amputate the foot or the toe.”
He explained that even a blister from ill-fitting shoes can lead to a serious infection.
Gupta’s team’s biosensors are thinner than a human hair. The goal of the project is to develop cost-effective disposable versions to embed in bandages. The battery-powered devices can detect changes in electrolytes, temperature, pressure and glucose levels, then transmit the data — and an alarm if necessary.
“We want to either use Bluetoooth or Wi-Fi to actually upload this to the doctor’s server, or even to the patient itself… maybe to their phone,” said Gupta.
“We could change the dressings, try systemic antibiotics, and we could do that early, rather than a week… or even a month down the line when that infection is in the bone,” said Palfreyman.
The technology could also be used to monitor high-risk patients in remote communities.
It can also be customized for each patient, or for other conditions such as pressure injuries — better known as bed sores — a serious problem for people in health-care facilities.
According to Diabetes Canada, up to two-thirds of people with diabetes who have had an amputation die within the following year. Up to 80 per cent die within five years.
“It’s frustrating for me as a nurse, coming across those wounds when they’re established… if only we could have come across that a little bit earlier,” said Palfreyman.
The team expects to have a bandage prototype within two years.
“It would be very nice to give back and be able to actually use these (biosensors) in a real-world environment, so that is very exciting for me and my team,” added Gupta.
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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