In the not-too-distant future, we could see bandages that not only cover wounds but monitor and help to heal them. That’s the idea behind the smart bandages developed by researchers at Caltech. Unlike traditional bandages made of absorbent material, these bandages are made from a stretchable and flexible polymer. And they have embedded electronic sensors that monitor wound conditions, including pH levels and temperature fluctuations that may indicate inflammation or infection.

Beyond monitoring, the bandages play active roles in the healing process; they can store medications such as antibiotics and deliver them directly to the affected area. The smart bandages can also deliver low-level electrical fields to a wound, stimulating tissue growth for faster healing. Data that the bandages collect transmits wirelessly to a smartphone, tablet, or computer, allowing healthcare professionals to review real-time updates on wound conditions. 

So what’s the big deal about a high-tech band-aid? Chronic wounds are a more significant issue than some may think. People with diabetes, for example, routinely have wounds that won’t go away, festering and often getting infected. Caltech researcher Wei Gao says, “There are many different types of chronic wounds, especially in diabetic ulcers and burns that last a long time and cause huge issues for the patient.” A recent Indiana University study found that in the Unites States “chronic ulcers are conservatively estimated to cost the health care system $28 billion each year as a primary diagnosis and up to $31.7 billion as a secondary diagnosis.”

So far, Caltech’s bandages haven’t been tested on people. Wei Gao says, “We have showed this proof of concept in small animal models, but down the road, we would like to increase the stability of the device but also to test it on larger chronic wounds because the wound parameters and microenvironment may vary from site to site.” Those future plans include collaborations with researchers at the University of Southern California.