A new wearable device can analyze sweat to measure health and fitness markers, and could reach the market within a year, according to The New York Times. A new advance in the technology was detailed in the journal Science Advances on Friday, allowing for real-time alerts on hydration, pH levels, sweat rate, and levels of chemicals like chloride, glucose, and lactose, which can mark diabetes, low oxygen, or cystic fibrosis.
The devices represent a significant step up from fitness trackers like Fitbit and Apple Watch, which use simpler mechanical measurements to track steps, heart rate, and sleep patterns. These devices are also larger and bulky, compared to the new device – a soft, flexible patch that doesn’t require a battery.
Small holes on the underside of the device take in sweat from the skin, directing it through tiny valves to reach sensors that react to chemicals like glucose and lactate. The valve system can be replaced as sweat builds up, allowing a longer lifespan for the electronics portion.
According to John Rogers, a Northwestern University engineer who led the development of the device:
“That’s basically it. There’s nothing that penetrates the skin, and there’s no power supply that’s driving flow.”
In recent years, fitness tracking technology has leapt forward and proliferated, and the new tracker would include a range of recent advances in one advanced device.
“This looks like the first version in which they integrated all of it in one device,” said Joannes Kepler University Linz engineering professor, Martin Kaltenbrunner, who did not contribute to the new paper.
Power is transmitted from a phone through a wireless coupling, which also sends data. The system could be tweaked to monitor one chemical over time, or all at once. It’s fully waterproof, so it could also be used by swimmers.
The next step will be to determine how the devices can be manufactured cheaply.
The trackers could have substantial benefits for healthcare, given their ability to consistently monitor key markers of health.
“If I have to go to the clinic once a day to have my data collected, I wouldn’t really do it,” said Kaltenbrunner. “But it just means wearing a patch and being able to self-monitor myself, then eventually this barrier will be reduced.”
Doctors already use a device to monitor chloride levels to detect cystic fibrosis in children, but it’s stiff and awkward, meant for single, one-off measurements. The new device could instead track levels over time, and could generate large data sets for more in-depth analysis by doctors. Rogers and his team have been testing the device on children with cystic fibrosis, and now plan to apply for Food and Drug Administration approval.
The team is also working on monitoring glucose levels in sweat for diabetes patients. So far, glucose in sweat appears to be more useful for diabetes screening than for monitoring glucose levels over time – sweat glucose appears to reflect blood glucose levels from as much as an hour earlier.
But for the 30 million Americans with diabetes, a way to measure glucose without needles to draw blood would be a welcome development, adding another paradigm-shifting feature to the promising device.