New health monitor is a complete lab on the skin

SAN DIEGO — A new wearable technology gadget can track blood sugar and alcohol levels as well as muscle fatigue during workouts. The tiny health monitor, which is about the size of a stack of six pennies, is worn on the skin. A prototype of the device, developed by engineers in California, shows how it acts like a “complete lab on the skin” by monitoring several health statistics at once, in real time.

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego say that the health tracker is applied to the skin through a Velcro-like patch of microscopic needles which are about one fifth the width of a human hair. It can be worn on the upper arm and sends the data wirelessly to a smartphone app. Wearing the health monitor is not painful, say scientists. The needles only just penetrate the skin’s surface enough to sense biomolecules in interstitial fluid, which surrounds the cells beneath the skin.

Developers explains that the wearable patch is connected to a case of electronics. Different enzymes on the tips of the microneedles react with glucose, alcohol and lactate in interstitial fluid. These reactions generate small electric currents, which are analyzed by electronic sensors and communicated wirelessly to an app.

Results from the wearable health monitor are then displayed in real time on a smartphone.

Wearable technology health monitor
The monitor is applied to the skin through a Velcro-like patch of microscopic needles which are about one fifth the width of a human hair. (Credit: University of California, San Diego)

The microneedle patch is even disposable and can be detached from the electronic case for easy replacement. Its reusable electronic case houses the battery, electronic sensors, wireless transmitter and other electronic components. To make things even easier, the health monitor can be recharged on any wireless charging pad used for phones and smartwatches.

Putting the innovative health monitor to the test



It was tested on five volunteers who wore the device on their upper arm while exercising, eating a meal, and drinking a glass of wine. The wearable tech continuously monitored the volunteers’ glucose levels simultaneously with either their alcohol or lactate levels.

Glucose, alcohol and lactate measurements taken by the health tracker closely matched the measurements taken respectively by a commercial blood glucose monitor, breathalyzer, and blood lactate measurements performed in the lab.

Most health monitors on the market, such as continuous glucose monitors for people with diabetes, only watch for one signal. The researchers say the problem with that is that it leaves out information that could help diabetics to better manage their condition.

Monitoring alcohol levels is useful because drinking alcohol can lower glucose levels. Knowing both levels can help people with diabetes prevent their blood sugar from dropping too low after having a drink. Combining information about lactate, which can be monitored during exercise as a biomarker for muscle fatigue, is also useful because physical activity influences the body’s ability to regulate glucose.

“This is like a complete lab on the skin,” says study’s co-corresponding author Joseph Wang, a professor of nanoengineering at UC San Diego, in a statement. “It is capable of continuously measuring multiple biomarkers at the same time, allowing users to monitor their health and wellness as they perform their daily activities.”

Adds co-first author Dr. Farshad Tehrani:“With our wearable, people can see the interplay between their glucose spikes or dips with their diet, exercise and drinking of alcoholic beverages. That could add to their quality of life as well.”

Dr Tehrani and fellow co-first author Dr. Hazhir Teymourian co-founded the start-up AquilX to further develop the wearable technology so it is ready for market.

“We’re starting at a really good place with this technology in terms of clinical validity and relevance. That lowers the barriers to clinical translation,” says co-corresponding author Dr. Patrick Mercier. “The beauty of this is that it is a fully integrated system that someone can wear without being tethered to benchtop equipment.”

The findings are published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Report by South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright.


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