Wearables to move beyond activity, vital signs to chemical biosensors

By: Brian Dolan | Jul 25, 2013        

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Brian Dolan, Editor, MobiHealthNewsResearchers at the University of California in San Diego have developed a noninvasive, realtime wearable sensor that continuously monitors the wearer’s sweat’s lactate levels. The sensor could be used to help assess physical performance for athletes, soldiers, or patients, the researchers wrote in an article published by a medical journal affiliated with the American Chemical Society.

“Wearable sensors have received considerable attention since they enable continuous physiological monitoring toward maintaining an optimal health status and assessing physical performance,” they wrote. “Recent research activity in this rapidly growing field has aimed at addressing the demands of epidermal sensing where durability, lightweight, and intimate skin conformance are core requirements. These endeavors have resulted in a plethora of physical sensor devices for assessing vital signs such as heart rate, respiration rate, skin temperature, bodily motion, brain activity, and blood pressure.”

Notably, the researchers charge that not nearly as many chemical biosensors have entered the market yet.

“However, further progress in this arena has been hindered by the lack of wearable and conformal chemical sensors and biosensors, able to monitor the chemical constituents residing on the epidermis of the wearer’s body. Such wearable chemical (bio)sensors could lead to additional important insights into the overall health status than physical variables alone can provide.”

The team’s sensor markedly improves on the tests in use today. Current lactate tests typically require finger pricks and blood draws and some lactate tests require samples to be sent out and reviewed over the course of several days. The newly developed sensor, which has a temporary tattoo form factor similar to sensors developed by Cambridge, MA-based MC10, aims to be the first that is noninvasive, continuous and realtime.

The San Diego-based team believes future projects to develop sensors that measure other metabolites found in perspiration are the next step.

While this group didn’t focus on it or mention it in their paper, sensors like these could prove to help — in the not too distant future — to crack the code on automatically sensing diet, calories, and nutrition.