EDMONTON - Gem Hebert is not shy about baring her backside for medical science.

The 61-year-old woman is one of about two dozen Alberta patients confined to a bed or wheelchair who are helping test a new technology called Smart-e-Pants.

The custom electric underwear stimulate gluteus muscles to help prevent pressure ulcers or bed sores.

"I've got the most photographed bum in Edmonton," a smiling Hebert said Wednesday following a news conference unveiling the underwear at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

A tumour in her back left Hebert unable to walk and forced her into a wheelchair last year. She then allowed medical staff to put her into an early, bulky version of the underwear for several weeks.

An electrical current lasting 10 seconds zapped her buttocks every 10 minutes.

Hebert said the zaps didn't hurt and the underwear was comfortable, although she has some design suggestions on how the garment could better allow women to go to the bathroom.

The latest Smart-e-Pants prototypes, displayed for reporters on mannequins, resemble trendy boxer briefs with zippers in the front and eight electrodes hidden inside pockets in the back. A Walkman-sized pack attached to the waist programs the jolts and records data.

Experts in rehabilitation medicine and at least five other disciplines, including neuroscience, worked together at the University of Alberta to develop Smart-e-Pants, which stands for sensory motor adaptive rehabilitation technology.

"It's a smart system," said key researcher Dr. Vivian Mushahwar with Alberta Innovates Health Solutions. The group helped fund the $5 million project with support from Alberta Health and Wellness.

She said people who can use their legs don't develop pressure ulcers even if they sit all day because they subconsciously fidget several times an hour. Smart-e-Pants mimic those movements.

"Pressure ulcers are a complicated and unresolved medical issue that needs our attention," Mushahwar said.

She described the ulcers as serious lesions that can stretch all the way to the bone. They can also be deadly. Complications due to pressure ulcers killed Christopher Reeve, the star of the "Superman" movies, who was left a quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident.

Mushahwar added that the ulcers cost the Canadian health-care system $3.5 billion each year. In the United States, the figure rises to $11 billion.

Rehabilitation specialist Dr. Ming Chan said nursing staff normally turn patients every two hours to help prevent the sores, even though it's almost a certainty they will develop.

He estimates a pair of Smart-e-Pants costs about $2,000 -- the most expensive part being the stimulator pack. The actual underwear, which can be tossed in the washing machine once the electrical component is disconnected -- runs up to $70.

Pilot tests have shown the underwear doesn't harm patients. Chan said the next phase of testing will determine how effective they are at preventing the sores.

Even without proven success, project researchers are working with commercial partners in Alberta and the U.S. and planning to mass produce the underwear. Chan expects Smart-e-Pants could be on the market in two years.