2017-03-08 10:47

Textiles and engineering for modern healthcare

The university's new professor of biomedical engineering, Fernando Seoane, researches to make a difference. Topping the wish list is a future with a sustainable healthcare system. "We need a paradigm shift in health care," he says.

Fernando advocates the American term known as pHealth, where P stands for predictive, preventive, personalised, and participatory. He refers to how healthcare today is built around an already ill person receiving care in a hospital, which is very resource intensive.

Fernando Seoane Martinez
Age: 40 years
Lives in: Brämhult
Family: His wife Anita and their children Liam, 6, and Rebecka, 4.
Does: New Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Borås. Also a Senior Lecturer at the Karolinska Institute (Department of Clinical Science, Intervention and Technology) and Associate Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology (School of Technology and Health).
Teaches: Medical technology and textile electronics.
Makes me angry: "People who get credit for something they have not earned. People who exploit others' good will and holes in the system."
Makes me happy: "Spending time with my kids, my wife, my best friends and my family."
Dreams of: "A world without so much unbalanced wealth."
If not a researcher, I would have been: "An aid worker."
My secret talent: "Not much is secret about me – for better or worse."
Dream guest at my dinner table: "Elon Musk."
What I'm most proud of: "That I have succeeded in combining my passion with my work. And that I have managed to keep old friendships strong across time and space."

"Swedish dental care is the perfect example of the opposite – by people brushing their teeth at home and flossing, we prevent a lot of illness, while offering free check-ups until adulthood. It saves enormous resources. What if we could do the same in other kinds of healthcare?" Fernando Seoane says.

Determining causes of stroke

It is within biomedical engineering that Fernando Seoane has made his academic career. Above all, his work has related to his interest in bioimpedance spectroscopy, a method that is used, among other things, to measure body fat. By passing a weak current through the body, the resistance – which is different depending on type of tissue – can be measured.

Fernando, for his part, focuses on the brain. Since 2003, he has conducted research on how the method can be used to determine the causes of a stroke.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death worldwide. Every year, around 30,000 Swedes suffer a stroke, which is triggered either by a clot or bleeding in the brain. While the former is treated with blood thinners, the latter is treated with medicine that promotes clotting. A miscalculation can, for obvious reasons, be fatal.

Millions of lives can be saved

Getting the right treatment quickly can be the difference between life and death. Today, stroke type is determined using X-ray. It can take hours before patients come to the hospital and are X-rayed. Meanwhile, important brain functions may have been lost. With bioimpedance spectroscopy, the assessment could be done in minutes – already in the ambulance.

"It would have a tremendous impact on health care capacity," says Fernando Seoane.

Today, his research group is only one of five in the world working in this area. Here in Sweden, he has found it difficult to get enough funding to do research at the pace he would prefer.

"It’s strange: 15 million people suffer a stroke each year. A breakthrough could save millions of lives annually. I have a colleague at Harvard who says that this is Nobel Prize material. I think that they have much better imaginations in the US, but still..."

From Madrid to Borås

Fernando Seoane actually began studying in order to join the army. Back home in Madrid, he knew that being an engineer could lead to the position of lieutenant. But after a year at the university, his plans changed.

"I realised that I would never fit in in the army, I am too likely to question undeserved authority. Moreover, I realised that the standard engineering technology was not enough. I did not want to do research just to do it – I wanted to benefit society.”

The clear choice was biomedical engineering. At the turn of the millennium, Fernando made his way to Sweden, where he completed his final year as an Erasmus student at Linköping University. After graduation, he began working at a Bluetooth firm in Stockholm.

When the company went bankrupt, he found, through the Swedish Public Employment Service, an internship at Linköping University. In 2003, he received a doctoral position focused on bioimpedance spectroscopy at the University of Borås with Professor Kaj Lindecrantz as supervisor.

Electro-textiles in healthcare

Since then, Fernando Seoane has worked to develop the method, primarily through his doctoral thesis entitled "Electrical bioimpedance cerebral monitoring".

Over the years, he has also become increasingly involved in the development of smart textiles, and especially textiles integrated with electronics solutions. He has, among other things, been involved in producing electro-textiles that can facilitate chronic kidney disease to keep track of their fluid levels as well as others that stimulate muscle nerves to treat people with muscle spasticity.

"Working with textiles is inevitable once you end up in Borås", says Fernando.

"When it comes to personalised healthcare, clothing with sensors is a really big thing," he says. "We have already developed garments that can measure respiration, ECG, impedance, and more. Some are already being tested in healthcare settings.  The biggest challenge is to make production sustainable from a business perspective, to implement it in the textile industry's existing production chain."

"I feel like I’m coming full circle"

Textiles, healthcare, technology – Fernando Seoane's interdisciplinary commitment is high. He formally belongs to the Department of Textile Technology but his research spans several fields.

"That's one thing I will work hard at as a professor, encouraging interdisciplinary solutions. The raw potential is there that can be taken advantage of via collaboration, yet people in academia tend unfortunately to be too locked into their own focus areas."

Joyful start to his professorial position

"It's special. I started here as a graduate student 14 years ago, and it feels like coming full circle. It has been a lot of work – now it is also about ensuring that the work lives on with other students after me."

Read more about Fernando Seoane.

Read more about the research at the University of Borås.

Text: Christian Naumanen
Translation: Eva Medin