The research team is focusing on horses for the technology’s initial application, due to the great commercial potential in the field of managing large animals.

Combining the power of Purdue University engineers and veterinarians, a technology with “a very clear clinical need” is aiming to take a bite out of the electronic textile industry. Clothes that are embedded with electronic functions to monitor various health signals are becoming increasingly common, but this innovation gives the user the power of customization, says its creators. Take any garment off the shelf—for human or animal alike—choose which health signals you want to monitor, and the technology sprays the clothing with microscopic sensors to capture your desired data.

The Purdue innovators believe the technology has great commercial potential for humans and large animals, especially; they’ve initially selected horses to demonstrate its capabilities. There’s a particular sweet spot in the commercial market to monitor asthma in horses, says Dr. Chi Hwan Lee, the Leslie A. Geddes associate professor in Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.

Asthma is widespread among horses, says Purdue Equine Sports Medicine Center Director Dr. Laurent Couetil, but the symptoms are subtle and difficult to spot. An earlier Purdue study at the Caesars Entertainment Equine Specialty Hospital in Shelbyville revealed 80% of the horses had mild asthma; even mild cases impact equine athletes’ performance.

To showcase the technology’s ability to monitor asthma, the team is transforming standard horse slickers to high-tech e-textiles. Led by Lee and Couetil, the Boilermaker team created a novel “dual regime spray” and coinciding technique that sprays nanomaterials onto any off-the-shelf garment; these nanomaterials contain microscopic sensors that can capture various bio-signals. Lee says the method of applying the technology to the garment, developed with Purdue associate professor of mechanical engineering Dr. Martin Byung-Guk Jun, is “the key novelty of this work.”

“Unlike other conventional spray techniques, this very unique spray technique we invented is capable of spraying nanomaterials onto textiles over a larger area at very high resolution,” says Lee. “The line width is below 1 millimeter—that’s very fine. So you can directly draw very fine features of conducting nanoparticles into any kind of textiles over large areas.”  

The nanoparticles in the spray can be tailored to the specific health signal the garment aims to collect. For the horse slicker application, the team is using the spray to “draw” microscopic biosensors on commercially available horse slickers to continuously monitor respiratory rate, an indicator of asthma.

“Our technology has a uniqueness in writing the custom design into whatever textile you’re interested in, and this custom design can be very broad,” says Lee. “If you’re interested in asthma, we can draw respiration rate [sensors] to detect your target signal. If you’re interested in some different kind of large animal with a heart problem, we can directly draw the ECG sensors—for collecting the heartbeat—into whatever textile of interest. We’re starting with managing asthma, but we can customize our sensor layout for various disease models.”

Lee says the technology can provide continuous monitoring in a very unobtrusive way; the wearer goes about normal daily activity while being monitored. He adds that the garment remains comfortable and can still be machine washed.

Using multiple horse slickers, Lee says the innovation can collect signals from several horses at a time and do it remotely, “so the clinicians don’t need to stay next to the horse overnight; they can just collect all the data from the horses at the same time at home.”

Lee, who has launched three startups to commercialize other innovations, says the team focused on horses for the technology’s initial application, due to the great commercial potential in the field of managing large animals. The Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization has filed a patent for the technology.

Lee says the team plans to further validate the innovation for use in the clinic and increase the number of horses using it to optimize manufacturing details, such as production rate and cost. The team is also interested in sniffing out venture capital sources.

“The opportunities for me to potentially help a lot of animals and people in need—that’s always made me excited,” says Lee. “In general, I’m working on wearable technologies that could be very useful for millions and millions of people and animals in need. I’m happy to be in the field of helping people, that’s my motivation.”

Lee says there’s great market potential for the technology to be used in horse slickers to monitor the health of many horses simultaneously.