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Life-saving textiles

Features | October 26, 2020 | By:

Enhanced functionalities drive healthcare textiles’ growth.

by Seshadri Ramkumar

Healthcare textiles span a range of applications from hospital drapes to wound care and compression products used during recovery and rehabilitation after surgeries. Single-to-limited-life textile products find medical-related applications such as implants, barriers against microbes and lifestyle enhancement products used in caring for everyone from babies to the elderly. 

Within the advanced textiles sector, segments that have good potential are healthcare, personnel and industrial hygiene and protective textiles. COVID-19 has clearly enhanced the usefulness and the visibility of healthcare textiles. Moreover, the need to have multi-functionality, such as barrier capability, filtration, repellency and breathability, has been highlighted due to the pandemic. 

According to Grand View Research, the healthcare textile sector is expected to grow about five percent annually, and the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the wearable medical devices field will be much higher at about 20 percent. Growth statistics are influenced by many factors but given that these products are important in protecting humans and the environment, they should have positive growth rates years to come. 

Bally Ribbon Mills manufacturers a range of narrow fabric products for medical and biomedical applications, including its E-WEBBINGS® product line. Photo: Bally Ribbon Mills.

Soft robotics and exosuits

Textile structures that enhance body movement and alleviate pain can be conveniently grouped as exosuits. These fabric structures are primarily used to enhance efficiency, while reducing injuries and discomfort. In general, exosuits consist of textile components such as waists bands, calf support, lumbar support and the like, which provide necessary assistive pressure to joints and muscles to reduce pain. 

Researchers at Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University have studied how exosuits can reduce fatigue and provide pain relief. In a recent paper published in Scientific Reports, the researchers evaluated fatigue reduction in the lumbar muscle with the use of supportive textile structures. Test subjects carried out bending exercises with and without the assisting suits. The results show that the exosuits helped to reduce back muscle fatigue.

Several projects involving fabric structures that help with strengthening muscles are ongoing in Harvard’s Biodesign Laboratory. While solid components are used to provide necessary supportive pressure, research today appears to focus on elastic components in fabrics with the use of external power, or with the help of in-situ generated power. 

Lightweight and rigid fabric applications that enhance physical performance, provide lumbar and muscular support, and reduce injuries and pain are also used in defense and industrial settings. The Warriors Web Program, a current initiative of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), focuses on fatigue, form and force. As warfighters are required to carry load of about 50 Kgs, lightweight and flexible pressure suits enable warfighters to be agile and enhance their efficiency in combat. 

Since exosuits prevent injuries and provide comfort during heavy duty work such as lifting loads, research and development of such textile structures has won support from perhaps unexpected partners, such as retail hardware outlets. Hardware chains such as Lowe’s that focus on ergonomics and the safety of employees are collaborating with research institutes in developing pressure-assisting fabrics. Lowe’s has collaborated with Virginia Tech to develop lift-assisting wearable exosuits. The resulting prototype has been tested for validation in some of the company’s stores.        

Wound care products 

Textile materials are put to good use as wound care products to treat diabetic ulcers, burn injuries and other open wounds. Development of such products involves different disciplines such as biomedicine, microbiology and materials science. Like the wearable medical textiles field, this sector is expected to have double digit growth.  A market survey by Allied Market Research estimates that this field will have a value of $15 billion registering annual growth of more than 10 percent. 

Textile structures’ porosity, flexibility in exploiting different fibers and its ability to be enhanced with different functionalities using a myriad of chemistries are proving valuable in developing advanced wound-healing products. Imbed Biosciences based in Madison, Wis., has developed a novel wound matrix based on a patented nanofilm architecture that can be impregnated with a variety of bioactive agents for enabling improved wound healing. 

The company’s first FDA-cleared product Microlyte®, a mere 20 micrometer thick matrix impregnated with antimicrobial silver, conforms intimately to the underlying wound surface where silver ions kill bacteria hidden in wound crevices. The matrix itself promotes cell growth and accelerates wound healing and ultimately is bioresorbed, circumventing painful dressing changes.

“There are myriad types of wounds ranging from minor lesions to complex wounds such as tunneling wounds and chronic wounds (diabetic foot ulcers and venous stasis ulcers). The management of these complex wounds often requires a multi-modal approach involving carefully chosen wound dressing suitable for a given wound etiology,” said Gaurav Pranami, vice president of research at Imbed Biosciences. “Advances in wound dressings are driven by novel bioactive materials and functional textile structures that act as scaffolds for cell proliferation.” 

Novel materials

Graphene, the 20th century “wonder material,” due to its 2D structure, fine size and multiple functionalities, is receiving due attention as a potential material with medical applications. Graphene Flagship is a European research collaborative involving academia, industry and startups and an initiative meant in particular to support the translation of graphene research from laboratory to reality. 

Audrey Biagioni and Laura Ballerini from the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy, are looking into graphene oxide’s ability to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTDS). This group is working at the interface of nanotechnology and neurobiology to develop materials that could have far-reaching health benefits. 

Nanofiber-based lightweight webs are finding applications as tissue scaffolds and drug delivering substrates. Lihua Lou at Texas Tech’s Nonwovens Laboratory has effectively developed titanium dioxide-coated drug molecules on a polyvinyl alcohol nanosubstrate for controlled drug delivery. Such controlled transmucosal delivery helps to target specific tissue and reduce toxicity. Other projects focus on nanofibers as toxic chemical filters to separate carcinogens such as Rhodamine B.    

Textile versatility: its future

Healthcare textiles have broad scope beyond the traditional realms that have typically been used in the patient, on the patient and near the patient. Textiles that are functionalized with wearable gadgets, chemistries and biologics provide novel applications and underscore the versatility of textile structures. 

These products enhance body comfort, provide workplace safety and serve as able drug releasing agents. It should be understood that the advanced textiles industry should approach this field as multidisciplinary and involve personnel with varied expertise spanning biomedical engineering, manufacturing and basic scientific fields.

Strategic planning and investments in interdisciplinary fields and research will be of much benefit. Such investments need not be in-house. They can be developed through partnerships, industry-university collaborations and contract research and development. 

Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., is a professor in the Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University, and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.

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