UVic professor revolutionizes skin health system

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UVic Engineering professor Mohsen Akbari has been credited with helping to revolutionize the wound care system, by creating a smartphone app that can detect and treat skin infections through “smart bandages.”

“Chronic wounds are major issues right now, especially with the growth of people suffering from diabetes, obesity, and many different metabolic complications,” Akbari said. “Every hour we have 12 people dying because of wound infections around the world.”

Akbari believes the traditional ways of treating infections — medical staff looks at the colour of the infection on the patient, or take cotton swabs for testing — may be too late to prevent the patient’s wound from being infected.

“[Medical staff] take swab samples, they grow these samples in the lab, and it takes two to three days for the sample to grow [enough] for them to come back and say if your wound is infected,” Akbari says. “It’s already late, especially if the wound is in the late stages.”

Akbari saw this problem and created a solution: the iDerm app.

Using technology derived from the smart bandages, the smartphone app can detect if you have an infection using a picture from your phone.

One of the major indicators of whether you have a skin infection or not is the pH level of the wounded area. Healthy skin will have a pH level of seven, and using this as their marker, Akbari can detect if the wound is infected.

Akbari explains that if the wound is being infected by bacteria, the pH level will change and either become more acidic (if the pH level goes up) or basic (if the level goes down).

iDerm can sense if a wound is infected by using sensors to monitor these pH changes. Akbari’s team developed these sensors in their lab and attached them to the commercially available bandage GelDerm to monitor the dips or rises in pH levels.

Akbari and his team noticed there were some molecules that undergo colour changes on the GelDerm bandages when the skin’s pH is changing. From there, they picked the chemicals, and mixed them with bio-compatible polymers that were developed in Akbari’s lab.

Once the stage of testing the infected molecules was done, the team used a 3D bio-printer to print the sensors onto GelDerm bandages.

“With that, we were able to continuously monitor changes in the pH of the wound,” Akbari says.

Using this technology from the GelDerm bandages, the team created iDerm, which has extensive information of pH level changes hardwired into it. The result? A concerned patient can take a photo of their infected wound, upload it to iDerm, and the app will detect the photo for colour changes to see if the pH has changed, signalling a skin infection.

“It converts the pixels into numbers,” Akbari explains, “and from there we detect small changes of the pH.”

For students at UVic, having one of their own professors achieve a ground-breaking scientific feat like the iDerm app surely serves to reassure that they are in good teaching hands. Akabri would like students to know hard work pays off, and for them to continue to follow their passion.

“For students, I want them to not be scared of following their dreams,” Akbari says. “Do the best thing you can do, and never be scared of trying new stuff.”

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