Smart glove technology, which tracks pressure points on the palms and fingers and helps prevent injuries to hands, as a result of nerve damage and sensory loss, is currently being tested at the Leprosy Mission Hospital, in New Delhi, India, to help leprosy patients.
The technology was partly developed at the University of Cape Town (UCT). UCT biomedical engineering lecturer Dr Sudesh Sivarasu believes in developing simple biomedical solutions to solve problems like these.
Sivarasu used an off-the-shelf fabric glove to model his own – a stretchable glove that uses a revolutionary fabric, owing to its built-in nanosensors.
“We have created an artificial sense of touch,” he says, adding that the fabric picks up haptic factors such as roughness, temperature, pressure and humidity.
The glove also maps how a person uses his or her hand to establish where the pressure variations are during simple domestic activities, such as cutting wood or cooking. These are recorded to show where ulcers are likely to develop.
This enables patients, who often live far from hospitals, to practise preventive care, espe- cially around the fingers, he explains.
“When wound infection occurs, the digits are the first to be infected in leprosy patients and amputation usually follows,” says Sivarasu. “We want to make this glove widely available,” he adds.
About 95% of people are naturally immune to leprosy, caused by mycobacterium leprae, which results in progressive damage to skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
Leprosy does not, contrary to popular belief, cause body parts to fall off, although parts can become numb or diseased as a result of secondary infections, as the disease compromises the body’s immune system.
Although curable, owing to multidrug interventions, those who develop the disease are prone to nerve damage. Patients often suffer a ‘secondary tier’ injury and disability, as they cannot feel heat or pressure from objects they come into contact with.
In South Africa, the leprosy figures are low, with only about 50 to 70 new cases a year, predominantly in the Eastern Cape and neighbouring countries, such as Swaziland and Mozambique.
There are around 232 000 new cases of leprosy each year. Of these, India has the highest concentration at about 56% of the global burden, followed by Brazil.
Thinking Out of the Box
Born and educated in India, Sivarasu said he has experienced the despair of seeing a loved one die because of the prohibitive cost of medical intervention in India.
In South Africa, where 90% to 95% of medical equipment is imported, with a mark-up of 300%, the excessively high cost is passed on to the patient.
Sivarasu and his team of postgraduate students have come up with a number of other innovative, inexpensive solutions to common medical problems, such as locally designed drip lines for refeeding, which is little more than a coil of thin plastic tubing with a plastic drip chamber attached.
South Africa uses “thousands and thousands of these” every day, but they are currently imp- orted from Germany, highlights Sivarasu.
“We are thinking out of the box,” says Sivarasu. “Too often we get stuck in a cycle of novelty and academic outcomes. We want to be able to make things easier, make it cost effective – and get it to the masses,” he adds.
For his PhD, Sivarasu developed a high-flexion artificial knee implant for eastern cultures, where people squat or sit on low platforms. Western prostheses do not provide the 120° flexion extension, the range needed for comfort when semisquatting.