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Consortium’s Investment in UC Research Brings Medical Technology of “Star Trek” a Step Closer


Technology that resembles the “tricorder” of the futuristic TV program “Star Trek” is a step closer today. That’s thanks to a consortium that will now invest in sweat-sensor research at UC – research to produce a “tricorder on a patch” that may some day read our sweat in order to rapidly diagnose a range of health conditions.

Date: 1/30/2013 12:00:00 AM
By: Tom Curtis
Phone: (513) 556-1169
Other Contact: M.B. Reilly
Other Contact Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover

UC ingot   University of Cincinnati engineers and scientists are building a world-class program in concert with Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) and other partners to produce medical technology not unlike Mr. Spock’s tricorder and Dr. McCoy’s medical devices from the original Star Trek television series.

Achievement of that goal is now a step closer to reality with the announcement of an Air Force Research Laboratory award to FlexTech Alliance of San Jose, Calif. The Alliance has been selected to launch a new manufacturing consortium which will operate at the junction of nanotechnology, biotechnology, additive manufacturing, and flexible electronics. Bringing together world class researchers and building prototype monitoring devices are the new nano-bio manufacturing consortium’s primary goals.  

Under this $5.5 million cost-shared program, AFRL will provide $2.2M in funding and the consortium partners will provide the balance of the award. Lockheed Martin, General Electric and DuPont Teijin Films are among FlexTech Alliance’s 20 consortium partners, along with researchers from the University of Cincinnati, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and other leading universities.
Sweat sensor
This sweat sensor may one day allow researchers to more easily monitor and measure ongoing health conditions.

 

Technology in development at the University of Cincinnati underpins a large portion of this new program and will likely determine the eventual funding amount coming to the university in support of research here.


SWEAT IS GOOD AS A DIAGNOSTIC TOOL

Spock’s tricorder in Star Trek may not be just a futuristic device for much longer. In fact, if you ask Jason Heikenfeld, associate professor of electronic and computing systems, he will argue that Spock was just using a smartphone that was wirelessly communicating with an electronic patch that performs medical measurements usually only found in a large medical lab.  How is this all possible?

Responds Heikenfeld: “With AFRL, we have been going over this question for a couple years now, carefully assembling key partners and foundational technologies, and learning from medical experts. Our conclusion: we can electrically stimulate a tiny amount of sweat beneath a band-aid sized patch, and get access to an enormous amount of small molecules, peptides, etc., which reveals what is going on inside the body.”   

Although the concept of electrically measuring biomarkers in blood, saliva, and other fluids is not new, few efforts have focused on broad access to biomarkers non-invasively through sweat. But that may be changing even more, as top medical experts such as Esther Sternberg at the University of Arizona, Lance Liotta and Chip Petricoin at George Mason University, and scientists at AFRL, are now showing that you can find many biomarkers in sweat at concentrations previously only thought possible through drawing of human blood.
UC researchers testing sweat sensor
UC researcher Jason Heikenfeld, center, tests the sweat-sensor communication with a smart phone. At right is student Daniel Rose. At left is Dan's brother, Roger Rose.

 

According to Joshua Hagen of AFRL: “Sweat is a vastly untapped biofluid for human performance monitoring. We are excited to be pursuing this truly forward looking technology to advance non-invasive physiological monitoring to a new level.”


PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS IN MILITARY AND OTHER SETTINGS
So what does this mean to you? Well, imagine: your smart phone continually mapping the effect of lifestyle choices on your health or catching the onset of cancer even earlier than you can now; paramedics with a simple wrist-strap device to determine stroke treatment in just minutes; trainers quickly diagnosing the full extent of a concussion on a football player; monitoring heat stress in firefighters and fatigue in first responders, or clinical studies of systematic drug response vs. time using a patch that costs less than $15 per patient.
 
These information-rich biomarkers are proteins and other small molecules that, when detected and measured, provide insight into a person’s state of health and fitness. The possibilities recently emerged in response to AFRL interest in investigating how to measure biomarkers in humans in a way that could be applicable to military applications. From the Air Force perspective, the value is quite clear, as you have $100 million in a fighter jet being operated by a human. It makes sense to also invest in technology to monitor and improve the performance of the human piloting the jet. Small changes in levels of alertness and cognitive function of a pilot could have dramatic effects on the ultimate success of a mission…even survival of the aircraft and its pilot.

All this got started, as AFRL hosted open-ended workshops to determine the best candidate approaches, one in 2010 and one in 2011. These workshops helped develop the relationships and concepts that would ultimately lead to where the program is now. The researchers considered biomarkers found in blood, avoiding that approach as too invasive. They also considered using biomarkers found in saliva and learned that in addition to being inconvenient, saliva is subject to a variety of contaminants within the oral cavity.  

The team also opted away from the use of breath or urine, again for being less convenient or inconsistent in sampling. But how is sweat convenient, unless you are in a sauna or just finished running a 5K? Well, it turns out that it that the same FDA-approved chemicals used in eye-drops and on infants can also cause you to sweat if applied correctly to the skin. But still, if you are a researcher now you have to have a human subject available every time you redesign and retest a device.
Close up view

 

The University of Cincinnati’s Linlin Hou, a post-doctoral fellow in Heikenfeld’s lab, has also addressed this challenge and created an artificial ‘skin,’ with all the texture and wetting properties of natural human skin that can be controlled with a simple pump to excrete fake sweat. Now we have sweat in our electronic patch, but how do you read it? University of Cincinnati engineering students Daniel Rose and Daniel Griffin integrated wireless communication onto the sensing patch, and created a simple yet powerful reader app that runs on Google Android smart phones.  

Although this ‘tricorder on a patch’ is still years from commercial reality, so many key components and technologies are now falling into place to make it an eventual reality. Reflecting on his research over the years, Heikenfeld says, “Our best successes come when we form outside partnerships to address an open-ended question and we don’t fully understand the needs or opportunities yet, but there are talented and committed teams on both ends, and something great typically results. The relationships you develop in previous work often serve as a solid foundation that enables you to build and reach heights that you are not quite sure even exist yet. The open-ended process of discovery is an extremely rewarding process that I greatly enjoy.”

In addition to Heikenfeld, members of the University of Cincinnati research team include: Ian Papautsky, associate professor of electronic and computing systems; Joshua Hagen, adjunct research assistant professor of electronic and computing systems (also of the AFRL); three doctoral students, one post doc and two undergraduate students. The UC team is now working to expanding the project to include other researchers at UC, and scientists at the University of Arizona, University of Miami and George Mason University. Now, with FlexTech’s support, the project is exposed to key U.S. industry players, and is preparing to deliver more of the future’s promise to our lives.