Your data, your health: How we’re sensoring the human body

21 Mar 2017

Image: chombosan/Shutterstock

While most eras are defined by tools, and revolutions defined by industrial advancement, it’s perhaps even more true that various ages of humanity could be defined by the lengthening lifespan of our species.

March of the Machines

The bronze and iron ages saw new tools for building, hunting and fighting. It also allowed for greater farming, a more diverse diet and a healthier human existence.

The Industrial Revolution pioneered by UK capitalism saw machinery replace workers in grimy, polluted buildings. It could be argued that this too proved a boon to the health of the UK populace in general.

What of today’s internet of things age, when everything must be connected, online and accessible to all? Again, health is at the centre, with medtech advancing at speeds never before seen.

‘The human body is a canvas; scientists are racing to find a way to paint a healthy future for us’

Medtech going mainstream

We recently looked at ten Irish examples of companies working in this space, ranging from novel tissue regeneration products for the surgical treatment of diseases right through to the prediction of pre-eclampsia, one of the most common – but deadly – risks to pregnant women.

Elsewhere, the impressive Lisa Helen at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork is working on a sensor to help anaesthetists guide needles close to peripheral nerves in the body and avoid administering unwanted pain.

In short, there’s an abundance of action in this space. And, just as Ireland could represent a microcosm of what is a global push for health solutions, DCU’s Insight Centre could well represent a microcosm of Ireland.

Within the next decade, it has been estimated that the general wearables industry will be valued at more than $150bn annually. Within that, health wearables could represent 25pc of the market.

The fact that the wearable sensing field is currently dominated by physical devices, though, is soon to change.

That’s according to Dr Colm Delaney, postdoctoral researcher at Insight, who sees a world beyond the limited diagnostics of users’ orientation, location, movement, heart rate and breathing.

‘At present, the wave of innovation is merely the calm before a storm of invention’

Smart materials

“The ability to monitor biochemically relevant parameters – such as pH or electrolyte, lactate, glucose and amino acid concentrations in biological fluids – in relevant time-frames calls for the advent of chemical and biochemical sensing technologies which are compatible with recent advances in microfluidics and smart materials,” he said.

“For wearable technologies to make a significant contribution to life sciences, biotechnology and point-of-care devices, it is necessary for robust chemical sensing methodologies to lead the development in this regard.”

Insight sports an adaptive sensors group, where much of the work focuses on synthesising new molecules, which can be used to detect biomarkers. These molecular sensors can subsequently be incorporated into “practical wearable device platforms”.

“By monitoring the response of these sensors to components in an accessible body fluid we can develop reliable and inexpensive disposable wearable sensors,” said Delaney.

“Such devices can be used to indicate hydration and blood sugar of the wearer, in addition to detection of disease biomarkers.”

Image: vitstudio/Shutterstock

Image: vitstudio/Shutterstock

Exploding onto the scene

Body sensor networks is an area that’s exploding, agrees Dr Larisa Florea, a team leader for materials and microfluidics at the adaptive sensors group. And data analytics holds the key.

“Through Insight, we are bringing data analytics together with chemistry and materials science to extend the current wearable sensor sector,” she said.

For this, consider the creation of wearable bio-sensors, which could offer information about the wearer’s health and physiological condition in real time. Users’ data: users’ health.

‘Utilising the surface of the skin is an obvious choice, given its abundance and role in human physiology’

“We are developing novel soft biocompatible materials that can be 3D printed into flexible, conformable platforms (for better contact and interaction with the human body) that can contain embedded microfluidic channels (for sample collection and transport),” she said.

At present, the wave of innovation is merely the calm before a storm of invention, according to Florea, who thinks big things are coming.

“In a glucose-monitoring device market estimated to reach $14.2bn globally by 2019, your eyes could offer a mirror into your health.

“In this project, novel optical sensors for glucose are integrated into contact lenses for real-time monitoring of glucose levels in the ocular fluid.

“Due to the optical output, this wearable platform permits coupling with a mobile phone to transform the optical output directly into a glucose level, by taking a selfie rather than a blood sample.

“The potential impact of contact lens mobile health monitoring platforms is massive, as it is a disruptive technology that can be further adapted beyond glucose-sensing into tracking other molecular markers present in the ocular fluid.”

Making sense of it all

Other cutting-edge research in this field comes from the SFI-funded SSCIN (Sensing Sub-Cutaneously In-Vitro) group at DCU.

Led by Dr Aoife Morrin, SSCIN is focused on the development of medical devices that can integrate with the human body to facilitate the constant streaming of biochemical data related to health or physiological status.

An example would be data streams generated by future wearables, which could be used to alert a diabetic to a hypo/hyper glycemic event, alert a patient suffering from a chronic disease to the on-set of a flare-up, or monitor compliance or efficacy of a drug therapy over time.

“We are working towards the development of medical device sensor interfaces that can be highly integrated with the body by way of having a ‘skin-like’ form-factor,” said Morrin.

“These device interfaces need to be compatible with the soft, curvilinear form of the human body in order to be capable of intimate skin integration for generation of high fidelity data, as well as provide maximum comfort for the wearer of the device.”

Image: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

Image: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

Utilising the surface of the skin is an obvious choice, given its abundance and role in human physiology.

For example, the process of sweating, as just one example, could prove incredibly important to these advancements.

Delaney notes his colleague Dermot Diamond’s SwEatch platform for Na+ detection, or Insight’s recent publication on disposable paper sensors for glucose detection in sweat, as two such examples.

Elsewhere SSCIN has a number of projects underway, such as smart tattoos to measure electrical characteristics of skin. Monitoring gas emissions from skin, too, could prove beneficial.

Essentially, the whole body is a canvas, and scientists are racing to find a way to paint a healthy future for us. Our bodies hold all the answers, it’s just a case of extracting the data and understanding what it all says.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic