Most cystic fibrosis diagnoses today require sitting for 30 minutes while an instrument collects sweat.
That bodily fluid is usually transported off-site to a lab for analysis.
Researchers then look at chloride ion levels in the sweat for indicators of the genetic disease.
“It’s a long process. Many, many steps are involved and technicians involved and a lot of time, so the sample can get contaminated or degraded,” said Sam Emaminejad, head of the Interconnected and Integrated Bioelectronics Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
But Emaminejad has helped create a new device that may help solve those problems.
It’s a sensor that collects sweat, analyzes its molecular makeup, and transmits the results for diagnosis.
All of that technology is contained in one wearable device.
“This can be programmed to do it all on its own, to switch from extraction to testing in a self-contained device,” Emaminejad told Healthline.
His findings were published this past week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
A diagnostic tech revolution
The sweat sensor is the first step in what Emaminejad hopes will become an “ecosystem of sensors” monitoring physiological signals in our blood, sweat, and urine.
It’s also part of a broader revolution in “bioelectronics” that is helping to achieve faster, more accurate, and more convenient diagnoses.
Alphabet Inc., the owner of Google, has a dedicated life sciences arm, Verily Life Sciences. It also has a joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline and Galvani Bioelectronics.
The Silicon Valley firm is said to be developing products such as contact lenses that can track blood sugar levels.
Researchers at Cornell University are working on slashing the time it takes to diagnose strokes through a technology that requires just a drop of blood. The process lights up substances in blood tied to a recent stroke.
Ultrasound machines are getting smaller and smaller.
And Apple reportedly has a secret team of biomedical engineers working on noninvasive blood sugar sensors that could help treat diabetes.
Monitoring blood sugar levels without piercing the skin has been seen as a holy grail by diabetes researchers.
This sort of monitoring may be a big part of the future of wearable devices like the Apple Watch — as well as the future of diagnosing, tracking, and treating our health.
More than steps and heart rate
Emaminejad’s device also takes on this futuristic quest.
In addition to testing its role as a diagnostic tool for diseases like cystic fibrosis, his team has examined whether high glucose levels in blood correlate to high levels in sweat.
That would make analyzing the composition of sweat a quicker, noninvasive way of monitoring.
In a small early trial, the correlation was there.
It’s all part of what Emaminejad sees as the future of the internet of things and wearable technology.
Right now, the Apple Watch and similar products “can only tell us macro things like steps and heart rate,” Emaminejad said. “If we want to really make smartwatches useful for health monitoring we need to think beyond heart rate and measure micro- and nano-scale particles like electrolytes and proteins.”
Being able to capture and analyze something like sweat would be a natural application of wearable tech.
A new drug could come out that doesn’t work on every patient with a particular ailment, for instance.
Wearables could be used to test in real time how patients respond and adjust their treatment.
One day, these technologies could be combined to create a monitoring network scanning our blood, sweat, urine, movements, eyes, and anything else that can be analyzed to make sure everything is working as it should.
“There are some biomarkers in blood that aren’t in sweat, and vice versa,” said Emaminejad.
He said his lab’s new device is a “good proof of concept” and a first step toward that connected future.