Tracking health through sweat

A new generation of devices aims to use perspiration to give a real-time snapshot of a person’s well-being or fitness
Someday soon, perhaps within a year, you’ll be able to slap a soft, stretchy patch on to your arm that tells you if you’re dehydrated. Or that your electrolytes are dangerously out of balance. Or even that you have diabetes. Fitness trackers such as Fitbit and Apple Watch already track step counts, heart rate and sleep rhythms. But they tend to be rigid and bulky, and mostly gather mechanical metrics, rather than assess a person’s underlying biology.
Ties in with care trends
A new generation of devices instead aims to analyse sweat for many chemicals at once, producing a real-time snapshot of the wearer’s health or fitness. These devices also fit intimately against the skin, and are comfortable for anyone, from premature babies to the elderly. One version is already being advertised by Gatorade. The latest advance in this technology, described in the journal Science Advances , provides real-time information on the wearer’s pH, sweat rate, and levels of chloride, glucose and lactate — high levels of which could signal cystic fibrosis, diabetes or a lack of oxygen. “It fits into a broader trend that you’re seeing in medicine, which is personalised, tailored approaches to treatment and delivery of care,” says John Rogers, a biomedical engineer at Northwestern University in Illinois, U.S., and the key architect of the device. Dr. Rogers’s team has been testing their device with children who have cystic fibrosis at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. They are in the late stages of a clinical trial, and plan to apply for approval from the Food and Drug Administration. A much bigger market for sensors lies in helping the approximately 30 million people with diabetes in the United States track their glucose levels. The most advanced diabetes sensor, approved by the FDA in 2017, is a soft skin patch coupled to a small reader, and relies on tiny needles that pierce the skin to monitor blood glucose. The ideal device would not involve needles or draw blood. To use sweat instead, however, scientists first need to learn more about it — how sweat rates vary among individuals, how different biochemicals make their way into sweat, and how well those levels reflect blood glucose. Dr. Rogers is also working with collaborators to develop sensors for urea and creatinine, which are indicators of how well the kidneys are functioning, and to chart the progress of people undergoing rehabilitation after a stroke. Other labs, such as one led by Wei Gao at Caltech, are trying to develop sensors for mental health conditions, including depression.

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