Smart Stitches

A 17-year-old invents color-changing stitches that can detect infections and save lives

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the importance of making medical advances more widely accessible to people around the world.

CAROLINE BARKER

IN THE LAB: Dasia Taylor works on her infection-detecting sutures.

In 2019, Dasia Taylor was in chemistry class at her Iowa City high school when her teacher asked if anyone was interested in entering a local science fair. “I’m more of a writing and humanities person,” says Dasia. But she raised her hand anyway. She had no idea that this small gesture would lead to an award-winning scientific invention!

For her project, Dasia developed stitches that change color when a wound is infected, alerting doctors to the problem. The idea is both simple and inexpensive, and it has the potential to help people around the world with their recovery after surgery. Dasia’s work eventually earned her a finalist spot in the Regeneron Science Talent Search—one of the top science and math competitions in the U.S. “It’s been a wild ride!” she says.

In 2019, Dasia Taylor was in chemistry class at her Iowa City high school. Her teacher asked if anyone wanted to enter a local science fair. “I’m more of a writing and humanities person,” says Dasia. But she raised her hand anyway. She didn’t know that this small act would lead to an award-winning scientific invention!

For her project, Dasia developed stitches that change color when a wound is infected. That warns doctors of the problem. The idea is both simple and inexpensive. It could help people around the world to recover after surgery. Later, Dasia’s work earned her a finalist spot in the Regeneron Science Talent Search. That’s one of the top science and math competitions in the U.S. “It’s been a wild ride!” she says.

A PROBLEM TO SOLVE

When Dasia first decided to enter her local science fair, she wasn’t sure what her investigation should focus on. So she started reading science news online. One article described new “smart” sutures—threads used to stitch together the edges of a wound—that use tiny sensors and electronics to monitor injuries as they heal. “But these sutures were super expensive and complicated,” Dasia says. She knew the technology would never be affordable for most people around the world.

When Dasia decided to enter her local science fair, she wasn’t sure what her project should focus on. So she started reading science news online. One article described new “smart” sutures. They’re threads used to stitch the edges of a wound together. The sutures Dasia read about contain tiny sensors and electronics to check on injuries as they heal. “But these sutures were super expensive and complicated,” Dasia says. She knew that most people around the world could never afford the technology.

NEW AFRICA/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

SURGICAL SUTURES: Doctors use specialized thread to close up wounds and incisions.

About 9 out of 10 people in low- and middle-income countries lack access to basic surgical care, according to the World Health Organization. In particular, Dasia thought about pregnant women in Africa who undergo a surgical procedure called a C-section when delivering their babies. More than 20 percent of them will develop an infection in the incision site on their abdomen. These infections can be dangerous or even deadly. Dasia knew that if she could create sutures that were “smart” but also inexpensive, she could help save lives.

The World Health Organization reports that about 9 out of 10 people in low- and middle-income countries lack access to basic surgical care. Dasia thought about pregnant women in Africa who need a surgical procedure called a C-section. It involves a cut on the abdomen to deliver a baby. More than 20 percent of these women will develop an infection at the incision site. These infections can be dangerous or even deadly. So Dasia wanted to create sutures that were “smart” but also inexpensive. She knew that could help save lives.

THE BASIC IDEA

Dasia did more research and learned that healthy human skin is slightly acidic. It has a pH of about 5 (see The pH Scale). When an infection sets in, the skin’s pH becomes basic, rising to 8 or higher. Taylor scoured the internet to find something inexpensive that changes color at different pH levels. She came across beet juice, a natural pH indicator.

Dasia did more research. She learned that healthy human skin is slightly acidic. It has a pH of about 5 (see The pH Scale). When an infection sets in, the skin’s pH becomes basic. It rises to 8 or higher. Dasia wanted to find something inexpensive that changes color at different pH levels. So she searched the internet. She came across beet juice, a natural pH indicator.

It took Dasia months of experimenting—plus the juice of about three dozen beets—but she managed to mix up a concoction that dyed sutures a bright red color. When their pH changed from acidic to basic, the sutures turned dark purple, which would indicate infection had set in. The color change could act as an early warning that something is wrong, says Dasia. This would allow doctors to start delivering potentially lifesaving treatments before an infection becomes more dangerous.

Dasia experimented for months. She used the juice of about three dozen beets. Finally she came up with a mixture that dyed sutures a bright red color. When their pH changed from acidic to basic, the sutures turned dark purple. That would show infection had set in. The color change could warn that something is wrong early on, says Dasia. Then doctors could start treatments before an infection becomes more dangerous. And that could save lives.

FOTOFOOD/FOODCOLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES (BEET); DASIA TAYLOR/SOCIETY FOR SCIENCE (FAKE SKIN)

COLOR CHANGE: Sutures dyed with beet juice change color at different pH levels. To show this, Dasia applied two solutions with different pHs to sample stitches.

BEET-ING THE COMPETITION

Dasia entered her sutures in several science fairs, whereshe won awards and got rave reviews from judges. She used their feedback to refine her idea further. Now she’s patented her invention. That gives her the exclusive rights to her idea so she can turn her creation into a real product. “Most 17-year-olds do not file for patents,” Dasia jokes. “Once again, I found myself doing a lot of Googling.”

Dasia entered her sutures in several science fairs. She won awards and got rave reviews from judges. She used their feedback to improve her idea. Now she’s patented her invention. That gives her the sole rights to her idea so she can turn it into a real product. “Most 17-year-olds do not file for patents,” Dasia jokes. “Once again, I found myself doing a lot of Googling.”

JOSEPH CRESS 

AWARD WINNER: Dasia wearing medals she has won for her invention

When asked what advice she has for other kids who want to become inventors, Dasia had this to say: “Be curious. I am so glad I was curious enough to raise my hand in chemistry class that day. It literally changed my life!”

What advice would Dasia give other kids who want to become inventors? “Be curious,” she says. “I am so glad I was curious enough to raise my hand in chemistry class that day. It literally changed my life!” 

DEFINING PROBLEMS: Think of a problem you would like to solve. What steps could you take create a simple and affordable solution?

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