Sweat can reveal more than an impression of one’s personal hygiene habits.
Someday in the not-too-distant future, sweat-monitoring devices might be able to tell how healthy a person is, thanks in part to groundbreaking work under way at the University of Arizona.
A lab at the UA’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine is working to develop devices to monitor a subject’s health by measuring biological markers in sweat such as salts, proteins, fats and hormones.
The goal is to create noninvasive devices that can measure health by tracking key molecules in sweat — much like physicians now do with blood tests, said Dr. Esther Sternberg, director of the UA Institute on Place and Wellbeing and research director at AzCIM.
“Our premise is that the same molecules and some different molecules that are present in sweat will tell you about the whole health of the individual,” said Sternberg, a former National Institutes of Health researcher recruited by Dr. Andrew Weil in 2012 to start the UA Integrative Medicine Center’s research program.
Sternberg, a trained rheumatologist and a 26-year veteran of the NIH, brought with her research including studies on sweat monitoring for health. She also has written a book on the correlation between health and places — personal environments like offices.
“The goal is health and well-being and prevention,” she said.
The Defense Department is particularly interested in developing devices to gather sweat for performance monitoring.
But Sternberg said the technology her group is working on will allow analysis of many more molecular targets and could be adapted to a variety of collection devices.
The group can’t talk about some of the work it’s doing with industry partners, but beyond skin patches the technology could be adapted to clothing and other textiles, cellphones or even carpeting.
With a new focus on wellness and especially the growing popularity of fitness monitors like the FitBit watch, which analyzes heart rates, the time is coming for more sophisticated wearable wellness devices, Sternberg said.
“It’s very popular. Everyone wants to know why their fitness level is and helps you maintain your optimal health and performance,” she said. “There isn’t at this point a way to get at the molecules, and that’s what we’re doing.”
IN REAL TIME
Sternberg’s sweat studies began more than a decade ago at the NIH when the research director of the General Services Administration challenged her to find a way to monitor the health of employees — without drawing blood.
“So I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to figure that out,” she said. “Measuring molecules in sweat gives you a method to track the molecular outcomes of health and well-being in real time, which is what we ultimately want to do, without drawing blood.”
To help translate her research at the UA into marketable devices, Sternberg recruited two NIH colleagues, chemist Min Jia and engineering expert Perry Skeath, to come with her to the desert.
Jia, a chemistry Ph.D. and UA research assistant professor, published a paper on a technology to measure sweat biomarkers — specific biological molecules — and created a system to “print” molecules on glass slides.
In their lab, Sternberg and her team are working on developing a way to isolate and count molecules in sweat. Jia’s technology uses antibodies that cling to molecules of interest, later tagging them with fluorescence for microscopic analysis. Skeath is working on aspects related to devices that will collect and analyze sweat.
PROMISING WORK ATTRACTS FUNDS
Shortly after arriving at the UA, Sternberg got a call from the Air Force Research Laboratory, which wanted to work with her to develop the technology into a device to measure biomarkers in sweat in real time.
For the military, “It’s really important for them that whatever people they have involved in a mission are performing well, so they want continual, unobtrusive measures of that person’s ability to perform their duty, said Skeath, who worked for Navy labs for years before joining NIH.
That led to UA awards from the Nano-Bio Manufacturing Consortium, launched in 2013 with support from the Air Force Research Labs to form industry and academic collaborations to advance flexible electronics.
Sternberg and the UA lab also became members of the FlexTech Alliance, an industry consortium funded partly by the Army and Air Force research labs and focused on flexible electronics across a broad range of industry uses.
Last September, the UA research center got a boost when the FlexTech Alliance won a $75 million federal contract to lead a Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics, one of six advanced manufacturing institutes established by the Obama administration. Industry partners have committed another $96 million to the effort.
The UA’s demonstration project on sweat-based health monitoring was the top project listed in the winning proposal for the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics, which is now known as NextFlex.
The institute was the seventh funded by the Obama administration as part of its drive to build innovation hubs around the country, and the second involving the UA. In July 2015, the UA and its renowned College of Optical Sciences were part of a national team of schools that won $110 million to launch the Manufacturing Innovation Institute’s Photonics Institute, aimed at developing integrated circuits that use light rather than electrons to carry instructions and data.
The group also is collaborating with several major industry partners and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. All told, Sternberg said her lab is receiving about $2 million annually from various research partners.
While much of her background is in basic research, Sternberg said she’s excited about the collaborative process embodied in the new manufacturing institutes and the emphasis on creating a development path to manufacturing.
FlexTech’s membership includes includes a Who’s Who of top manufacturing companies, including industrial giants GE, Corning, Boeing, Dupont, General Motors, defense contractors Raytheon, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, and health-care leaders Eli Lilly and Roche Diagnostics.
The UA also may benefit from any inventions that come out of the FlexTech effort.
Each FlexTech Alliance member gets to keep the patent rights to whatever they discover or invent, but they must license the technologies to alliance members on reasonable terms, Skeath said.
So far, Skeath said, the group has filed three invention disclosures — sort of placeholders for a patent: One involving a new biomarker found in sweat, one involving a sweat patch and another related to skin that could have applications in the cosmetic industry.
“The goal is not to publish papers; the goal is to make something that works, get it out fast and make it help people,” Sternberg said.