Graphene for healthcare and biomedicine
Could graphene transform the future of healthcare?
From graphene-based wearable monitors to optimise athletes' performance or track wound healing to implants that can record brain activity or provide artificial retinal vision, graphene and layered materials have great potential for a number of next-generation biomedical technologies.
To this end, several partners of the Graphene Flagship, along with a number of our industry-led Spearhead Projects and spin-off companies, are working on exciting developments that could bring new graphene-based medical devices to the market. Here, we highlight six of these promising initiatives.
One is CHEMsens, an initiative to develop a graphene-based plaster sensor for human skin. Graphene enables the quick detection and analysis of key biological constants, like the levels of sodium, potassium, lactic acid and glucose in the sweat. The plaster can measures biophysical stress and transfer information to electronic devices, and could help athletes to fully optimise their training. The sensor features four independent devices that can operate separately, and utilises paper-based fluidics to improve sweat flow into the sensor, enabling smooth and swift detection – while ensuring operation is safe for the user.
Also in the ever-expanding realm of wearables, Graphene Flagship Associate Member Grapheal have developed a pioneering wearable patch to remotely monitor chronic wounds. The flexible and transparent graphene-based biosensor continuously records and stores biometric wound data, which is then communicated to the cloud thanks to a smartphone app. Using this technology, doctors and nurses can remotely monitor wound healing in their patients, with prompt alerts if any infections or medical complications arise. Grapheal are also currently developing a graphene-enabled diagnostic test based on saliva sampling to rapidly screen for the COVID-19 infection.
New spin-off company and partner of the Graphene Flagship, INBRAIN Neuroelectronics, was born with a pioneering spirit in mind. Originating from Graphene Flagship partners ICN2 and ICREA, Spain, INBRAIN scientists are working on graphene-based implants to record brain activity for the treatment of brain disorders like Parkinson's and epilepsy. The smart devices are built around an innovative graphene electrode to decode neural signals with high fidelity, enabling a personalised therapeutic response. The spin-off already attracted a €1 million investment from four investment firms earlier in 2020 to accelerate their development.
In the same vein, a newly developed graphene-based brain implant detects electrical brain activity at extremely low frequencies and over large areas, unlocking previously undetectable information. Indeed, brain activity at such low frequencies – below a tenth of a hertz – carries critical information about the onset and progression of epilepsy and strokes, and the mapping of these was unprecedented. The technology, developed by Graphene Flagship scientists at Graphene Flagship partners ICN2, IDB-CNM, IDIPABS and ICFO, Spain, has already been adapted for brain recording, and could change the way neurologists visualise brain activity.
In the field of biomedical imaging and diagnostics, Graphene Flagship spin-off company and Graphene Flagship partner Cambridge Raman Imaging Limited (UK and Italy) are developing graphene-based ultrafast laser devices to diagnose and track tumour growth in cancer patients. Their devices will be used in a new kind of medical microscope that takes advantage of Raman spectroscopy to generate digital images of tissue samples in real-time. The technology could differentiate between healthy and diseased tissue, show the extent of tumours and measure their response to drug treatment, potentially allowing surgeons to verify whether a cancer has been completely removed after operation.
With a bold vision, Jose Garrido and other Graphene Flagship scientists are working on graphene-based retinal implants to provide artificial vision to patients with retinal degeneration. They have developed electrodes that mimic the way stimulation works in natural photoreceptors: images are captured by an external camera and sent wirelessly to the graphene-enabled electrodes, which transform these signals into electrical impulses that can travel into the brain. Using this device, patients blinded by retinal degeneration may be able to see again. So far, images are still pixelated, but the team were recently awarded a €1 million grant by the la Caixa Foundation to further develop their prototypes. Now, they plan to embark on an ambitious three-year project to design the next generation of retinal prostheses using graphene.
The future is bright for graphene in healthcare, and the Graphene Flagship looks forward to seeing the first fruits of these promising initiatives come forth over the decade ahead.