Scientists are hoping to create a smart patch which could detect the early onset of osteoarthritis in patients’ knees.
Cardiff University’s team uses damage sensors from aircraft wings to catch subsonic cracking sounds in joints before the disease fully develops.
They believe a disposable patch using them could save expensive diagnosis and treatment of advanced osteoarthritis.
A cheap screening tool is “the holy grail”, they said.
Dr Davide Crivelli, of the School of Engineering, said: “The idea has got huge potential to change the way we diagnose osteoarthritis (OA).
“If we’re able to link the sound signature of a healthy knee and a knee with disease, we will be able to lower the costs on society a lot.”
He said he was “pretty confident” the patches could be widely used within a decade.
Arthritis Research UK estimates 8.75 million people in the UK have sought treatment for OA.
When human joints develop OA, they can make audible grating or clicking noises during movement due to damage – otherwise known as crepitus.
In the early stages of the disease, these rubbing noises are confined to higher, non-audible frequencies.
The team hope to exploit acoustic emission sensors, usually used to detect shockwaves created by damage in structures such as aircraft wings, to pick up these sounds using a thin patch worn on the skin.
Unlike typical laboratory devices previously developed, Dr Crivelli said his would be less chunky and with the use of cheap sensors – some as little as 10p – they could be entirely disposable.
This could allow detection, for example, in a GP surgery or at home using a self-monitoring app on a mobile phone or tablet.
Prof Cathy Holt, director of the university’s musculoskeletal biomechanics research facility, said a cheap means of early diagnosis could be a real boon.
“The key thing is most people, once they have got joint pain, it’s too late – they have got the disease already. Whereas, there might be points where we can intervene earlier,” she said.
“So, the holy grail really is some sort of screening tool.”
She said a cheap option could help save millions of pounds spent on diagnosis via X-ray and MRI scans, as well as improving the lives of patients through targeted, bespoke treatments.
There is currently no cure or drugs for osteoarthritis but people can use exercise or assistive devices to arrest the condition, if it is caught early enough.
The university believes a prototype could be ready within a year, with the realistic possibility of the product being in surgeries in seven or eight years, if trials are successful and a manufacturer can be found.
“If we can show proof of concept, there would be a lot of interest,” Prof Holt said.