NOV 06, 2017 3:18 PM PST

Wearable Sensor Makes it Easier to Diagnose Cystic Fibrosis


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We usually do our best to hide our sweating, but chemicals in perspirations can offer important clues about our health. Importantly, levels of sodium, potassium, glucose, and lactate, along with pH and rate of sweat can offer vital clues about underlying health conditions.

Researchers at Stanford University adapted wearable technology to diagnose cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening condition that affects more than 70,000 people worldwide.

Cystic fibrosis is one of the most well-recognized genetic conditions that leads to an elevated production of chloride ions in patients. As a consequence, large amounts of thick mucus builds up in the lungs and other vital organs, which compromises respiration.

The primary way doctors diagnose cystic fibrosis today is through a 70-year old technology - the sweat test. The assessment requires patients to be hooked to electrodes that stimulate and collect sweat from the skin. Stanford researchers say the sweat test is impractical for young children who are unreasonably expected to keep still during the 30 minute duration of the test. Furthermore, they noted that results from this test can take days to analyze and diagnose, extending the stress for patients and families.

Taking advantage of flexible sensors and microprocessors, Stanford researchers designed a system that adheres to the skin, stimulates sweat production, and analyzes the molecular content of the sweat in real-time. Patients with higher levels of chloride ions trigger a higher electrical voltage on the sensor, thereby providing a means to diagnose cystic fibrosis without the inconvenience of a traditional sweat test.

"This is a huge step forward," said Carlos Milla, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford, and one of the study’s co-authors.

At the end of the day, what the team is most excited about has to do with a broader application of the wearable technology in healthcare and precision medicine. Just like how glucose monitors allowed diabetic patients to be more informed and take charge of their condition at home, the team sees the same potential for their wearable technology. For example, with this wearable device, patients and doctors can know very quickly if a drug is having the desired effect. "CF drugs work on only a fraction of patients," said Sam Emaminejad, the study’s lead author. "Just imagine if you use the wearable sweat sensor with people in clinical drug investigations; we could get a much better insight into how their chloride ions go up and down in response to a drug."

The sweat-based device can also be modified to other conditions, such as diabetes, and other biochemical imbalances. “Sweat is hugely amenable to wearable applications and a rich source of information," said Ronald Davis, the study’s senior investigator.

In the long run, Davis hopes wearable health devices can improve the understanding of our individual health. Such devices would eliminate the guesswork, simply because we’re just not that great at interpreting our own body signals. "For example, if I could sense that I'm coming down with a viral infection and my alarm goes off and says, 'You're coming down with a virus infection,' I should go home and not decide I'll push through it. It's not about me, it's about all of my colleagues,” said Davis. "If you could block a pandemic, it might even just die out."

Additional source: MNT

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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