A new patch could one day monitor a person’s health using minuscule sweat samples. The patch is being developed by Biotex, a consortium of European research institutes and companies, including the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM).
Most clothing designed for health monitoring focuses on physiological measurements, such as body temperature and heart rate. This is one of the first attempts to continuously analyze biochemical signals using clothing. The team employed a novel approach for monitoring: a combination of hydrophilic and hydrophobic yarns woven together to channel the sweat to the sensors. By utilizing natural attraction and repulsion actions to move the sweat, the method also circumvents the need for additional power sources, which would add bulk to such a device and make it less convenient for everyday use.
Once the fabric has directed a few milliliters of sweat into the patch, the sensors determine the amount of potassium, chloride, or sodium present. Measuring these electrolytes can provide insight into a person’s metabolism. By comparing the electrolyte amounts to reference measurements, such a system could indicate if the user is overexerting herself or stressed, says Jean Luprano, project coordinator at the CSEM.
Once the tiny reservoirs are full of sweat, the user throws away the chemical part of the patch, which is about 5 to 10 square inches. The patch-embedded band or shirt can be washed, and the monitoring electronics reused.
“There are tons of people doing biomechanical and physical tests; most of them look at heart rate and body temperature,” says Jeffrey Chu, director of engineering at Simbex, a company that develops products on biomechanical feedback systems. But testing biochemical properties, he says, is “truly unique.”
“The idea of Biotex is to go beyond the normal measurement systems,” says Luprano. Aside from the electrolytes, sensors can also detect the commonly monitored pH, pulse, sweat conductivity, and oxygen saturation to monitor health.
Luprano and his colleagues plan to test the patch to see how well it works with two key groups: obese children and diabetics. Aside from the potentially helpful self-monitoring that the patch would allow, the system could also help researchers collect more data on these groups. Luprano says that during the next two weeks, the system will be tested on approximately 10 subjects. They will wear the sensor on their backs while riding a bike; meanwhile, physicians will read the output in real time.
Traditionally, diabetics use a glucometer for self-monitoring, which requires pricking a finger to get a blood sample. Biotex does not intend for its patch to replace this process, but Luprano says that the continuous monitoring provided by the patch could yield insight into individuals’ conditions.