In our recent Lux Executive Briefing in Tokyo, we discussed the theme “Who wins in a digitized healthcare and nutrition world?” We explored how healthcare and the agrifood system will be driven by digital technologies to become more personalized, more responsive, and more predictive, and what opportunities that creates for materials and chemicals companies.
Here, we will explore two conditions – diabetes and aging – that are critical for Asia-Pacific and explore how materials innovations can support the efforts to combat these conditions.
- Diabetes: Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when either the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin (Type 1) or when the body can’t effectively use the insulin it produces (Type 2). The World Health Organization (WHO) has called diabetes in Asia an epidemic, with Southeast Asia particularly hard-hit. WHO estimates that 96 million people have diabetes in the region, but 50% of cases remain undiagnosed. Diabetes in Asia is particularly challenging, as it often manifests even in individuals with a healthy body mass index (BMI), making it much harder to identify at-risk individuals. In addition, it’s challenging to bring effective screening, advice, and care to rural, low-income portions of the Southeast Asian population.
- Aging: While aging itself is not a medical condition, it both brings higher risks for health conditions like dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and a number of geriatric syndromes. Populations in East Asia are rapidly becoming aged: By 2030, 30% of Japan’s population, 23% of South Korea’s population, and 16% of China’s population will be aged 65 or above. The size and scope of this aging means that much of this population will need to remain active and independent. At the same time, monitoring and healthcare solutions need to be available and easy to use to prevent an explosion of aging-related health conditions.
Combating these shifts will require a major effort from governments and agrifood players, as well as substantial technological innovation. In keeping with the theme of “Who wins in a digitized healthcare and nutrition world?” we will focus on one emerging digital technology that can help address both conditions and identify the resulting materials opportunities.
Wearable electronics are a promising tool to help monitor, manage, and improve quality of life for elderly individuals or those with diabetes. Wearable solutions range from basic fitness trackers, which can encourage a healthy lifestyle, to smart textile solutions that seamlessly integrate with existing garments, all the way up to advanced wearable sensing platforms for individuals with critical conditions. Emerging solutions include a wearable glucose monitor for diabetic individuals, a smart clip for monitoring the elderly, and a sock with embedded sensing that can be used to assist in diabetes care. While wearables have many advantages, there are still some challenges that are slowing adoption – challenges that materials innovation can help solve. These challenges are:
- User retention: Monitoring of healthy or at-risk individuals is one of the key opportunities for wearables. Getting users – who often consider themselves healthy and capable – to use a wearable can be a major challenge, however. A clip or smartwatch can often be left on a nightstand, so materials innovators can focus on developing new solutions that make it possible to integrate sensing directly into garments that are already in use. One example is DuPont’s Intexar line of electronic inks and films for sensing garments. DuPont highlights that the solution is both flexible and seamless, allowing comfortable integration into clothing. The need for comfort isn’t limited to smart textiles – Dexcom’s glucose-monitoring wearable uses an adhesive to attach directly to the skin, but adhesives can be irritating. Innovators like Adhesives Research are developing novel adhesive foundations that can balance user comfort with long-term attachment. These adhesives can help lower the discomfort associated with these wearables and accelerate adoption.
- Sensing capability: Sensing is a critical function for wearable electronics and smart textiles in particular. Sensing in smart textiles often relies on measuring changes in conductivity as printed circuits are stretched. While this is a fairly powerful approach, it is limited in terms of the type and specificity of the sensors it can create. Using a combination of dielectric and conductive inks allows for a wider range of possible sensors, including fully printed pressure sensors. Materials innovation can also enable more conventional forms of sensing. Cardea recently raised $7.6 million to commercialize graphene-based biosensors, which it claims can enable powerful detection of biomarkers in a scaled-down, portable package. While primarily aimed at R&D today, this type of innovation could drive more sensing into the personal space in the long term.
- Cost: Many wearable devices are already at a price point that’s suitable for consumers, but substantial cost reduction is needed to bring many of these devices to rural populations – especially in Southeast Asia. One example product that would benefit from cost reduction is Sensoria’s smart sock, which retails for around US$50. This sock can be used to help diabetics through foot exercises without a doctor, a great complement to the telemedicine approaches already in use in rural parts of Southeast Asia. However, the price is currently too high, driven by the use of woven-in electrically conductive fibers. Replacing these woven fibers with a printed conductive ink would be much cheaper but requires an ink that is durable, highly conductive, and low-cost. One possible option here would be the graphene-based conductive inks developed by Directa Plus, which are already being adopted into sport-focused wearables.
The examples shown here are just a few of the potential approaches to materials innovation for personalized healthcare and wellness. There are opportunities for materials innovation in a diverse set of areas – from synthetic biology to 3D bioprinting and microbiome analysis. What’s notable about all these opportunities and innovations is that they are all targeted outside the hospital. For materials developers, focusing on these kind of consumer wellness opportunities can help speed development and reduce regulatory burdens, and ultimately allow them to execute a more successful innovation strategy while meeting the needs of the Asia-Pacific population.