How weaving wearable tech into your wardrobe could save your life

Toronto's smart textile industry addressing need for remote care during COVID pandemic

It sounds like science fiction: imagine being able to slip on a pair of otherwise average looking underwear, knowing that conductive fibres in the garment's knit will capture a continuous picture of your heart rate, breathing patterns, body temperature and other important biometrics. If you were to experience a sudden decrease in activity or a medical episode like an arrhythmia, caregivers in a remote location would be able to intervene immediately, possibly saving your life or eliminating the need for long-term rehabilitative care.

As COVID-19 hit Canada in March, the then pervasive “stay home” message left many elderly Canadians and people living with disabilities in isolation, making the need for remote monitoring devices particularly acute. While limiting people's movement protects them from contracting the virus, the decrease in face-to-face visits from caregivers and loved ones means that crises ranging from minor strokes to depression can go unnoticed for substantial lengths of time. Even though many organizations have experimented with remote monitoring devices for years, a new, and timely, partnership between the KITE Research Institute and Toronto-based textile technology company Myant will soon make remote care as easy as putting on that pair of underwear every morning.

Partnership between KITE and Toronto-based textile technology company Myant will soon make remote care as easy as putting on a pair of underwear

Private sector partnerships

KITE has long prioritized partnerships with private sector companies. Not only do for-profit startups like Myant have a built-in motivation to get products to market as soon as possible, but unlike some slower-moving academic institutions, the private sector tends to be more overtly solution oriented. When KITE Director Dr. Milos Popovic learned that Myant CEO Tony Chahine was motivated to develop easy-to-use wearable biometric interfaces after seeing his own father's struggle with dementia, Dr. Popovic knew that Myant could benefit from KITE's expertise, and vice versa.

“For many years we've worked aggressively with various companies to create solutions that will improve the experiences of aging populations and people with disabilities in Canada,” Dr. Popovic says. “If we make solutions that are available to the wider majority of people, we essentially enable people to benefit from our work and the money that society has invested in us through taxpayer dollars. This is the kind of work that really goes back to the community.”

Dr. Milos Popovic (L) and Myant CEO Tony Chahine (R) inspect remote monitoring undergarments at the company's plant in Toronto.

Of course, the partnership goes both ways. While KITE actively looks for private sector companies that can efficiently provide solutions to patient problems, businesses like Myant want to ensure that their products offer legitimate medical benefits. The two organizations work as partners to scientifically “validate” the technology so that medical professionals can feel confident that the garments are more than flashy gadgets. Clinical validation, says Chahine, is a key step in getting this kind of transformative technology to those who need it, while the partnership between KITE and Myant is “monumental” for the development of textile-based technology, he notes.

$5.6 billion: Expected size of the smart textile market by 2025 in U.S. dollars.

Source: Grand View Research

“As a company, it's important for us to think beyond the product itself and focus on the outcome that it will bring to the public,” explains Chahine. “Our purpose is to provide a new kind of care, one that is continuous and will truly predict and anticipate things before they happen. For that we need validation through a top-of-the-line research institute, and in Canada there is none better than KITE and University Health Network.”

More remote monitoring

Myant has already put in more than 10 years of research and development into its textile-based technology, commercially known as Skiin. The line includes underwear, bras and tank tops – clothes that touch the skin – and are made with conductive fibres that can pick up and transmit biometrics through the capture of an electrocardiogram reading. The Skiin garments are a potential game changer in that users can simply slip them on and go about their day without having to worry about pushing buttons or interacting with any kind of interface. That makes it ideal for elderly, physically impaired or cognitively impaired populations.

“It's unique in that it's like any other garment that you might have,” notes Milad Alizadeh-Meghrazi, Myant's Vice President of Research, Development, and Partner Integration. “We've come up with a very unique way of coating the yarn with conductive materials so that when you wear or wash it the conductive properties don't change.”

The ability to monitor patients at home has become especially pressing in the era of COVID-19. Myant's products are not intended solely for elderly users, but they certainly are ideal for aging patients, who are the very same people most at risk when it comes to the virus. The Skiin garments would limit these patients' exposure to the virus, while still allowing caregivers to keep track of their changing health care needs.

Our purpose is to provide a new kind of care, one that is continuous and will truly predict and anticipate things before they happen. For that we need validation through a top-of-the-line research institute, and in Canada there is none better than KITE and University Health Network. – Tony Chahine, Myant CEO

While the immediate applications would be to alert remote caregivers if a patient experiences any concerning changes in biometrics, the technology offers many other possibilities, given that patients would theoretically be wearing their Myant underwear up to 24 hours a day over the course of multiple months or years. With such a significant amount of continuous information, KITE scientists may eventually be able to use data patterns to predict when a patient may be headed for a stroke or similar medical emergency, giving caregivers the opportunity to take preventative action. Since the garments don't require any contribution on the part of the patients beyond putting on their daily pair of underwear, the possibilities for long-term data collection are endless.

“If we have more data about things like heart rate collected over a longer period of time, we're going to be able to discover new things,” says Bastien Moineau, a postdoctoral fellow working with KITE. “We can collect that data because patients don't need to change their lifestyle to use it. It's about simplicity without the need to change behaviour.”

A Canadian solution

Dr. Popovic is also proud that this win-win relationship is a wholly made-in-Canada solution. While the Skiin garments will potentially have an impact around the world, especially as COVID-19 remains a global concern, everything from conception to validation to implementation has taken place in Canada.

“What's exciting about this is that it's homegrown,” Dr. Popovic notes. “We have a Canadian company, Canadian innovation and a Canadian health care institution trying to create technology that has the potential to solve problems related to aging, disability and within the wider population. I'm very excited by that.”