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NEWSBYTE As the use of artificial intelligence and analytics spreads in healthcare as a strategic aim for many governments, researchers and doctors are working to shift care towards a more predictive, preventative model.

In this environment, wearable sensors and medical devices are a booming investment area. In particular, low-cost, mass-produced, energy-efficient sensors are a key area of growth, as medical practitioners see the potential in using such technologies to help diagnose, predict, and treat a range of conditions.

According to new research published by a team including Yiran Yang, Yu Song, and Xiangjie Bo of the Department of Medical Engineering at California Institute of Technology, laser engraving can help in the mass-production of sensors that are designed to monitor vital signs – especially bodily functions such as sweat, which can include biomarkers linked to chronic diseases. Their research was published in the journals Science and Nature.

Such sensors could enable real-time, non-invasive monitoring of the biological processes in a patient’s body, including vital signs such as heart rate and body temperature.

Traditional sensors to monitor these types of processes can be prohibitively expensive to manufacture. “To enable precise measurements, the production of wearable sensors often requires expensive equipment, long processing time, and extensive personnel training, which elevate costs,” says the report.

To get around these problems, Yang and coauthors have created a cost-efficient method to mass-produce this type of sensor. Instead of deploying the type of semiconductor-based technology that is commonly used to produce components for wearable devices, the authors used a laser to convert a plastic sheet into a multifunctional wearable surface, which could measure respiration or heart rate, body temperature, and/or biomarkers from sweat.

“Resembling inkjet printing, the laser beam was driven by a precision motor to scan the plastic sheet following a microscopic pattern. Along this micropattern, the laser energy was adjusted to convert the plastic either into microchannels, which guided sweat, or into graphene, a form of carbon that changes electric properties in the presence of biomolecules from the sweat.

“The graphene elements also produced electric signals in response to forces or temperature change, which enabled the measurement of heart and respiration rates and body temperature.”

The research team used the new laser-patterned plastics as disposable sensors, which were applied to human subjects and connected to a thumb-size microcontroller, which wirelessly transferred the sensor’s signals to a smartphone, where the data could be read and interpreted by medical practitioners.

Image credit: CALTECH