New Tool Monitors Blood Flow Remotely, Battery-Free
Lane Long posted on January 22, 2019 |
A new monitor designed to catch vascular issues before they begin is the latest productive collision of engineering and medicine. (Image courtesy of Levent Beker, Stanford University.)
A new monitor designed to catch vascular issues before they begin is the latest productive collision of engineering and medicine. (Image courtesy of Levent Beker, Stanford University.)

Stanford University medical researchers have built a new tool for measuring and tracking blood flow through individual vessels. The device is completely remote, biodegradable, and doesn’t require batteries. With development, the sensor could help doctors better observe how well surgeries designed to increase blood flow are working. The long-term hope is that it will allow for better management of a variety of conditions without requiring constant hands-on attention from professionals.

Sensor Specifics

First described in the January 8th edition of the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the new sensor addresses a major problem. Blood flow issues are notoriously difficult to detect. Analyzing the effectiveness of blood vessel procedures is complicated by the fact that detection often doesn’t come until after real issues have emerged. That means secondary surgeries are often required, and a vicious cycle of sorts can begin. The researchers hope this solution could allow medical workers to monitor flow in real-time and head off potential concerns.

The sensor works by maintaining close physical contact with the targeted vein, wrapping around it like a candy wrapper. The interior of the device then “feels” how the flowing blood changes the shape of the vessel, which changes how much electricity the monitor stores. It’s this change in energy that keeps doctors remotely informed about the patient’s wellbeing. The charge is relayed to an external device, which then functions as a signaling beacon to alert doctors of changes.

                The development of this monitor has been years in the making. A spin-off of a technology initially targeted bestowing artificial limbs with a sense of touch, but significant modifications were required to address the challenge at hand. The first design iteration was designed to monitor air flow, not blood. Developing a structure that was delicate enough to feel pulsing blood but with enough structural integrity to maintain its shape was a bit of a balancing act. The placement of the antenna that relays the charge levels also had to be in the Goldilocks zone at the intersection of stability and functionality.

Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

                The blood flow sensor opens a number of intriguing possibilities—and challenges—for the future of health. According to the research team, the use of monitors to detect issues earlier is a trend that’s beginning to show real promise. With that said, the barriers to effective implementation are significant.

                The design challenges associated with building tools that are both functional and safe for this type of application demand significant engineering chops, which is why this project was a cross-departmental effort at Stanford. Quality management through remote sensors also requires fairly robust data analysis, a skillset which isn’t always baked into medical education. Lastly, the medical knowledge to determine which changes matter is a baseline requirement. This effort demonstrated that bringing such innovations to life will require a collaborative push from people in diverse fields. This blood flow sensor is a clear illustration of the impact such work can have.

                For more on how new data collection tools—like this monitor— are making healthcare smarter, check out this article on how AI is making a splash in the space.

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