A team of engineers and physicians from the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities has designed a unique 3D-printed, light-sensitive medical device that is placed directly on the skin and provides real-time feedback to correlate light exposure with disease flare-ups. The device could help millions of people worldwide with lupus and other light-sensitive diseases by providing access to more personalized treatments and information to determine what is causing their symptoms.
The research was published in Advanced Science, an interdisciplinary premium open access academic journal. The researchers have also applied for a patent on the device, and the technology is available for licensing.
According to the Lupus Foundation of America, approximately 1.5 million Americans, and at least 5 million people worldwide, have some form of lupus. Photosensitivity is common in people with lupus, with 40 to 70 percent of people with lupus finding their disease worsened by exposure to sunlight or even indoor artificial light. The symptoms of these flare-ups for patients with lupus include a rash, joint pain, and fatigue.
“I treat many patients with lupus or related diseases, and clinically it is challenging to predict when patients’ symptoms will flare up,” says dermatologist Dr. David Pearson of the University of Minnesota Medical School and co-author of the study. “We know that ultraviolet light and, in some cases, visible light, can cause flare-ups of symptoms — both on their skin and internally — but we don’t always know what combinations of light wavelengths contribute to symptoms.”
Pearson had heard about the pioneering custom 3D printing of wearable devices pioneered by Michael McAlpine, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota and his team, and contacted him to work together on a solution to his problem.
McAlpine’s research group teamed up with Pearson to develop a first-of-its-kind fully 3D-printed device with a flexible UV-visible light detector that can be placed on the skin. The device is integrated with a custom wearable console to continuously monitor light exposure and correlate with symptoms.
“This research builds on our previous work where we developed a fully 3D-printed light-emitting device, but this time instead of emitting light, it receives light,” said McAlpine, a study co-author and Kuhrmeyer Family Chair. Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “The light is converted into electrical signals to measure it, which could be correlated with flare-ups of the patient’s symptoms in the future.”
McAlpine said developing the device was no easy task, however. The 3D printed device consists of multiple layers of materials printed on a biocompatible silicone base. The layers include electrodes and optical filters. Filters can be replaced depending on the wavelength of light to be assessed. The research team also used zinc oxide to capture the ultraviolet (UV) light and convert it into electrical signals. The device is mounted on the skin and a custom made console is attached to capture and store the data.
The research team has received approval to test the device on humans and will soon begin enrolling participants in the study.
“We know these devices work in the lab, but our next step is to really put them in the hands of patients to see how they work in real life,” Pearson said. “We can give them to participants and track what light they’ve been exposed to and determine how to predict symptoms. We’ll also continue testing in the lab to improve the device.”
McAlpine and Pearson said the 3D printing process is relatively inexpensive and could one day provide easy, fast access to the device without the expensive manufacturing processes of traditional devices.
“There is no other device like this right now with this potential for personalization and such ease of manufacture,” Pearson said. “The dream would be to have one of these 3D printers in my office. I could see a patient and assess what wavelengths of light we want to evaluate. Then I could just print it out for the patient and give it to them.” … are 100 percent customized to their needs. That’s where the future of medicine is headed.”
In addition to Pearson and McAlpine, the University of Minnesota research team included Xia Ouyang, Ruitao Su, Daniel Wai Hou Ng and Guebum Han from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota.
The research was funded by a University of Minnesota Grant-in-Aid of Research, Artistry and Scholarship grant and an Academic Investment Research Program grant. Support was also provided by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health. Portions of this work were performed at the Minnesota Nano Center, which is supported by the National Science Foundation through the National Nano Coordinated Infrastructure Network (NNCI).