Anywhere from 2% to 5% of surgical incisions and other stitched-up lacerations get infected, and it can be life-threatening. That’s partly because patients may not know their wounds are infected until they see signs like redness or experience pain. Teenager Dasia Taylor has an answer – she invented sutures that turn a different color when a wound is infected.
Dasia Taylor’s suture solution
When she began the project in October 2019, Dasia Taylor was just 17 years old. The Iowa City West High School student was participating in science fairs and was eventually named one of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, a highly prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors.
Her invention was a suture threat used for medical stitches that changes color from bright red to dark purple when an infection is present. She uses beet juice to make the dye. But it’s far more chemically complicated than that.
Color-changing sutures save lives
Dasia Taylor’s invention is designed in part to help people who don’t have access to convenient medical care and is based on a process already known to scientists.
According to Smithsonian Magazine (cited below): “Taylor had read about sutures coated with a conductive material that can sense the status of a wound by changes in electrical resistance, and relay that information to the smartphones or computers of patients and doctors. While these ‘smart’ sutures could help in the United States, the expensive tool might be less applicable to people in developing countries, where internet access and mobile technology is sometimes lacking.“
While less than 5% of people in the US whose wounds are treated with sutures develop an infection, that number jumps to 11% in developing countries.
Taylor is also concerned about the high rate of C-section infections in parts of Africa and the US (the US has just as high of a rate of infection – sometimes higher – than some African nations with fewer medical resources).
How do color-changing sutures work?
So, how do the sutures help notify patients of an infection? Well, according to Smithsonian: “Healthy human skin is naturally acidic, with a pH around five. But when a wound becomes infected, its pH goes up to about nine. Changes in pH can be detected without electronics; many fruits and vegetables are natural indicators that change color at different pH levels.”
“I found that beets changed color at the perfect pH point,” said Taylor. Bright red beet juice turns dark purple at a pH of nine. “That’s perfect for an infected wound. And so, I was like, ‘Oh, okay. So beets is where it’s at.’”
But that wasn’t the full solution. Taylor also had to find a material that would hold onto the dye while not being too thick to be used as a suture. She tackled the problem during the COVID lockdown and ran experiments until she found the best of the 10 materials she was trying – a cotton-polyester blend that could change color in just minutes of picking up a change in pH.
There are still some kinks to work out before it goes from the laboratory to the bedside, but it’s safe to say this teen is on her way to an illustrious research career. – WTF fun facts