UCT develops smart glove for leprosy patients

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A smart glove, developed partly by researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT), could help leprosy patients prevent injury to their hands.

The glove uses technology which tracks pressure points on the palms and fingers and in this way prevents injuries to patients' hands as a result of nerve damage and sensory loss. It is currently being tested at the Leprosy Mission Hospital, in New Delhi, India.

According to Dr Sudesh Sivarasu, from the Department of Human Biology at UCT, the stretchable glove uses a revolutionary fabric with built-in nano-sensors. For example, a patient with hand nerve damage is not able to feel the heat from a mug of tea and this is where the smart glove is very useful. "We've created an artificial sense of touch. The fabric picks up haptic factors such as roughness, temperature, pressure and humidity," says Sivarasu.

A statement released by the university notes that about 95% of people in the world are naturally immune to leprosy, caused by mycobacterium leprae and resulting in progressive damage to skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Although the disease is curable, patients often suffer a "secondary tier" of injury and disability, because they can't feel heat or pressure. In many cases, this destroys tissue and results in amputation.

"The glove also maps the individual's hand usage to establish where the pressure variations are during simple domestic activities such as cutting wood or cooking. These are recorded to show where ulcers are likely to develop," says Sivarasu. "Because of wound infection, the digits are the first to go in leprosy patients and amputation usually follows."

According to 2012 statistics, there are 232 000 new cases of leprosy recorded each year and India has the highest concentration (about 56% of the global burden) of leprosy. In SA, approximately 50 to 70 new cases are reported annually, predominantly in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

In September, Sivarasu presented a paper on the smart glove at the International Leprosy Congress, in Belgium, where he and Sathish Kumar Paul, his PhD student based in India, won the Young Scientist Award and Best Oral Presentation Award.

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