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Just Imagine

Futuristic fashions will fight our health scares

  • Story Highlights
  • Clothing in the future will monitor our heart rates, pulses and prevent illnesses
  • Scientist is working on a smart bra that could detect cancerous cells
  • Analysts predict the industry is worth roughly $400 million today
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By Stephanie Busari
CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- From sensors in workout gear that monitor sweating while you run at the gym, to underwear that aims to detect cancer cells, the contents of our wardrobes have been quietly undergoing a revolution.

Garments which monitor heart rate and motion of runners have been developed.

Garments which monitor heart rate and motion of runners have been developed.

Over the past decade, there has been a rise in the number of ways that technology is being incorporated into items of our clothing.

Trials of smart clothes that can repel insects and mask nasty odours such as cigarette smoke have proved successful and are already being marketed.

Last year, a design student at Cornell University designed a garment that can prevent colds and flu and, crucially, never needs washing.

While, Textronics, a Delaware-based company, has developed a sports bra which monitors the heart rate and motion of runners. The company has patented stretchy textile electrodes that can be incorporated into the garments.

We can expect to see, in the not-too-distant future, fabrics that have in-built cooling, deodorant, moisturizer and even vitamins, experts say.

"The world is your oyster when it comes to the sorts of things you can do with clothing and technology. You're only limited by your imagination, really," says Dr Adam Best, a research scientist who has developed a shirt that produces electricity simply by being moved, such as when the wearer is walking.

Researchers at the Wearable Computer Laboratory at the University of Australia say it is now possible to insert cameras, microphones, accelerometers and GPS units into clothing.

"Your whole body can be equipped with an array of sensors," Bruce Thomas, co-director of the lab, tells CNN.

Analysts estimate the industry is worth roughly $400 million today and may reach $700 million by 2010, according to Military and Aerospace Electronics magazine.

Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in this field is ongoing work on a breast screening smart bra which could allow wearers to detect breast cancer at the earliest stage.

Professor Elias Siores, of the University of Bolton, England, says the bra can detect cancer before the tumor can develop and spread into surrounding areas. Crucially, Professor Siores says the bra can also monitor the effectiveness of any breast cancer treatment the wearer is undergoing.

The smart bra works using a microwave antennae system device which is woven into the fabric of the bra. The antennae picks up any abnormal temperature changes in the breast tissue, which are often associated with cancer cells.

It is hoped the bra will be on sale in stores in a couple of years.

However, some remain doubtful as to whether the science behind the bra is achievable. There are also doubts whether the bra could replace traditional screening methods, such as a mammogram.

This is because the idea behind the bra supposes that as tumors grow, there will be a higher demand for blood flow. The increased blood flow then produces elevated temperatures around the affected area of the breast, sending a warning to the wearer.

Critics say blood flow rates could be increased for any number of reasons.

There are benign growths and nonmalignant inflammatory changes, which might also increase blood flow," said Anne Rosenberg, a breast surgeon at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Despite the reticence from some quarters, work in this burgeoning field forges ahead.

Scientists in Europe are at at an advanced stage of developing outfits which they say will be able to monitor the body's vital signs and detect illnesses and infections at their earliest stages.

The European Commission sponsored research project centers on the development of biochemical sensing techniques compatible with integration into textile, called Biotex.

The first version will be able to monitor sweat by measuring acidity, salinity and perspiration rate.

Shirley Coyle, an engineer based at the National Center for Sensor Research at Dublin City University, Ireland, is involved in the Biotex program.

"If clothes could talk, they could tell us so much about our bodies," says Dr Coyle.

"They are an interface between our bodies and the environment and in the future will prove a vital tool in health care. We are creating clothing with sensors that does not intrude on the comfort of the patient with wires."

"This is an entirely new area, but every day we are discovering ways of adding new functions to textiles. It has so much potential. Our clothes will definitely play a very different role in the future," says Dr Coyle.

Biotex project co-ordinator Jean Luprano stresses that these new "intelligent textiles" are designed to complement, not replace traditional diagnostic methods, especially when it is not practical for someone to visit the doctor.

"In these cases, wearable monitoring systems, even if less accurate, can help the physicians get additional information they would not have without them if the patients are away from the hospital."

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