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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Funding boost to relieve the pain of people living with arthritis

Published: 12 July 2018
Dr Kai Yang
Dr Kai Yang

The pain of millions of people living with arthritis in the UK could be relieved, thanks to a funding boost received by IfLS member Dr Kai Yang.

Kai, a Principal Research Fellow in Electronics and Computer Science, has been awarded a £600,000 Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Fellowship to expand her research developing e-textiles that could help ease the pain generated by the healthcare condition.

Osteoarthritis is a leading cause of pain and disability that affects people’s independence and quality of life, and represents a massive burden on NHS resources. The number of people with osteoarthritis-affected knees is estimated to increase from 4.7 million in 2010, to 6.5 million by 2020, and 8.3 million by 2035, due to the UK’s ageing population.

Kai’s research is exploring the use of e-textile technology as a therapeutic application enabling self-management of healthcare conditions to help people feel better and live longer. The Fellowship is underpinned by two existing projects. The Medical Research Council (MRC) SMARTmove project which has developed the printed electrodes for healthcare applications. The EPSRC funded FETT project which has identified manufacturing and packaging processes that enable circuits to be reliably and invisibly incorporated in textiles.

She said: “The Fellowship will allow me to build on my previous research into developing cutting-edge electronic textiles for wearable therapeutics, where dry electrodes printed on everyday clothing fabric can deliver a small electrical current to interfere with the pain signals and stimulate the release of the body’s natural endorphins easing the pain.

“People who are in severe pain are less mobile and this technology could enable them to become more independent, engage in more activities and experience better health for longer. Wearable e-textiles will provide a comfortable to wear, easy to use and cost-effective solution to end-users.”

The three-year Fellowship will see Kai expanding her team, and widening her collaboration with industry, clinicians and - most importantly to her - the end-user.

“All of my research is driven by the end-user,” said Kai. “I focus on what they need and that governs the direction of my research. The biggest impact for research is to make it useful for the individual. It doesn’t matter how clever the technology is if the end-user doesn’t like it or can’t use it.”

Kai has ensured the needs of end-users and clinicians has been incorporated throughout her research. Through FortisNet – an interdisciplinary hub of expertise in regenerative medicine, orthopaedics, prosthetics and assistive technologies launched by the IfLS – she has consulted with members of the public and doctors, an engagement that is set to continue with her EPSRC Fellowship.

“We will be recruiting end-users to test the prototype and ensure their view is integrated throughout the design. I hope that the Fellowship will enable us to take this technology to the next stage, with a view to eventually getting it to market through a spin out or start-up company. The Fellowship offers me a great opportunity to work at the interface of the University, industry and members of the public,” she said.

Flexible circuit for e-textiles from the FETT project
Flexible circuit for e-textiles from the FETT project
Printed electrodes on a knee sleeve
Printed electrodes on a knee sleeve

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