Dasia Taylor, a 17-year-old student from Iowa, has spent the last year perfecting an invention: suture thread that changes color when a surgical wound becomes infected. Taylor had read about the current technology in the medical industry: sutures coated with conductive material that sense the status of a wound by changes in electrical resistance. The changes are relayed to smartphones or the doctors’ and patients’ computers.
Taylor knew that smart sutures were helpful in the United States and other developed countries but they might be too expensive and not accessible to people worldwide. The World Health Organization reports that on average “11 percent of surgical wounds develop an infection in low-to-middle-income countries” (compared with between 2 and 4 percent of surgeries in the United States, according the Journal of the American Medical Association).
Infection rates after Cesarean section births are even higher than after other surgeries, especially in African nations, which the World Health Organization reports can be as much as 20 percent. Taylor knew she needed to create a low-tech alternative to the sutures coated with conducive material as many of the world’s mobile phone users have basic phones, not smartphones.
“I’ve done a lot of racial equity work in my community. I’ve been a guest speaker at several conferences,” Dasia Taylor told Smithsonian Magazine. “So when I was presented with this opportunity to do research, I couldn’t help but go at it with an equity lens.”
For four months leading up to a regional science fair in February 2020, Taylor spent her Friday afternoons doing research under the guidance of her chemistry teacher. She learned that healthy skin is naturally acidic, with a pH around five. But when a wound becomes infected, the pH increases to about nine. Many fruits and vegetable change color at different pH levels so she started researching the best one.
Dasia Taylor learned that beets changed color at the perfect pH point, as bright red beet juice turns dark purple at a pH of nine. Then she had to find a suture thread that would hold onto the dye, be the proper thickness for surgical thread, and when dyed that its color changed with its pH changed. She tested ten different materials before learning that a cotton-polyester blend was the right material; it changed and held the color within five minutes of an infection.
This invention has nabbed Dasia Taylor awards at several regional science fairs and she was then named one of the 40 finalists in Regeneron Science Talent Search, run by the Society for Science organization and one of our country’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. And while Taylor did not win the competition, she was given the Seaborg Award, making her a spokesperson for the finalist cohort.
Dasia Taylor plans to patent her invention but she is running more tests on the product to make it is useful as possible. Many surgical site infections occur below the surface of the wound (for example in the muscle cut through during a C-section). Color-changing suture thread would not alert of an infection below the skin where no one could see it change colors. Also braided, cotton-polyester blend thread could be dyed easily but it also may harbor bacteria more easily than non-absorbent, non-braided currently used suture thread and could cause infection.
“I read some studies that said beet juice was antibacterial. And although I want to take their word, I wanted to try it for myself. I wanted to reproduce their results,” Taylor told Smithsonian Magazine. She is working with a microbiologist at the University of Iowa to create a research plan regarding studying bacteria using specific, sterile practices and proper techniques.
Whole Champion Foundation applauds Dasia Taylor for diligently and enthusiastically searching for a solution to a societal problem. We look forward to see what other problems she will solve as she strives to make the world a better place.
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