Babies are by nature more vulnerable to jaundice, a condition caused by the buildup of the toxic chemical bilirubin that turns the skin yellow. This is because their metabolisms aren't so resilient and their liver has trouble getting rid of the toxins. Though jaundice can be treated with light therapy, this involves the baby lying alone and naked inside an incubator. A new material could replace this uncomfortable experience, by instead wrapping infants inside snug pajamas that radiate light inwards and set them on a warmer, more comfortable path to full health.
The buildup of bilirubin and onset of jaundice has consequences beyond yellow skin. If the toxin accumulates to a certain degree, the yellow pigment damage can actually injure the brain in a more serious condition called kernicterus, which can cause things like athetoid cerebral palsy and hearing loss.
This can be avoided with therapy that applies light at intensities of 30 microwatts per square centimeter in the blue spectrum. This transforms the bilirubin into a more soluble form that the infant's under-developed organs are then capable of disposing from the body.
This therapy takes place inside an incubator, where the baby must be blindfolded, naked and beyond a mother's reach. If nothing else, it is not an ideal introduction to the world. But a new material developed at Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) could enable infants to undergo this treatment while snug and warm in their mother's arms.
The scientists made the material by weaving optical fibers into it that use battery-operated LEDs as a light source. These optical fibers match the diameter of regular fibers used in the fabric and are arranged at just the right angle to direct the light uniformly onto the baby's skin inside, meaning they don't need a protective mask. The team says the resulting material could be worked into a romper or sleeping bag, and because it only sends light inwards, no blindfolds would be necessary.
"The photonic textiles are washable and tolerated well by the skin", says Maike Quandt, lead author of the study, which involved studying how breathable the textiles are using a thermoregulation model. "The satin fabric is smooth and matches the wearing comfort of a typical baby onesie."
In its current prototype form, the fabric radiates blue light at lower intensities than 30 microwatts per square centimeter, but the team says that developing it for commercial production shouldn't be too complicated, as boosting the intensity just means using stronger LEDs.
The research was published in the journal Biomedical Optics Express.