Imagine a wireless wristband that could detect cancer and other diseases, or even bacteria or other biohazards in the air or on solid surfaces, and then quickly transmit its findings to an individual’s smartphone and their medical provider.
That could soon be possible, thanks to technology developed by a team of Rutgers University engineers. The system is designed to help doctors better monitor their patients remotely and could eventually help individuals avoid bacteria in food or public facilities, or workers that face elevated environmental hazards. (The technology is highlighted in a study published late last month in Microsystems & Nanoengineering, a Nature.com journal.)
The prototype involves a plastic wristband fitted with a tiny channel — thinner than a human hair — that collects a microscopic blood sample for analysis. It also has a flexible circuit board and other microsystems to analyze the blood and digitalize the data, and a Bluetooth module to transmit the information to doctors, hospitals or the patient’s phone, according to Rutgers.
The technology is currently capable of detecting changes in blood-cell counts, which can indicate bleeding disorders or conditions like leukemia. But in the coming years the device will also be able to measure bacteria, air pollutants or other environmental hazards, predicted Mehdi Javanmard, an assistant engineering professor and study author.
“There’s a whole range of diseases where blood cell counts are very important,” said Javanmard, who heads the schools’ NanoBioElectronics Lab. Monitoring spikes in red or white blood cells can help providers identify problems early on.
Replacing costly tests, equipment
The scientists said the concept builds on currently available devices like the Fitbit, which can measure heart rate, but the new device allows for far more medical information to be collected. Many of the tests it will carry out now require far more expensive and bulky equipment that is only available at medical facilities and that don’t allow for remote monitoring.
“The ability for a wearable device to monitor the counts of different cells in our
bloodstream would take personal health monitoring to the next level,” said Abbas Furniturewalla, a former Rutgers researcher and study author.
Technological innovations in the past decade have greatly expanded health and wellness opportunities for consumers on many levels. Individuals with disabilities have benefited from the use of voice-recognition software and tablet computers; new apps have allowed patients and families more options in traveling to and from medical appointments; and the public has gained a greater awareness of health by using personal technology that monitors heart rate, calories, and exercise goals.
“Increasingly capable smartphones and cheaper off-the-shelf components are constantly pushing what technology can achieve on-the-go. Robust and powerful electronics are driving progress for medical devices, which can be chronically worn or implanted,” the authors wrote in their study.
The devices come at a time when healthcare providers have focused increasingly on maintaining health and managing chronic diseases among their patients and are eager for options to manage their care remotely. Doctors and nurses are also using telemedicine to better communicate with patients, computer software to help identify those most at risk for opioid addiction or misuse, and new statewide databases to improve care and clinical outcomes.
Early detection of illness
“Being able to monitor body health is crucial for early detection of illness, which in turn would allow for more accurate diagnosis, more efficient treatment, and lower morbidity or health repercussions,” the study notes.
Javanmard said their technology, like some others, should be used as an initial screening, to flag any concerns for follow-up, not as a final diagnosis. Their device will also need to go through clinical trials and other accuracy testing before it can be made available to the public, he said, and “false positives would need to be fully minimized.”
While the prototype is somewhat bulky, resembling a large copper cuff, Javanmard said the technology will be streamlined and could be inserted into a single chip, to be incorporated within another device. The current technology involves a blood sample that is about 1/10th of what would be required for a home diabetes test, he added.
Within the next year or two, Javanmard said he anticipates the technology will also be able to take environmental samples of the air or surfaces. This would involve individuals taking a swab from a surface, like a doorknob or restaurant table, and then dip into a chip on the wearable device, which would analyze the findings and transmit them wirelessly to their phone, medical provider, or other destinations.
“This would be really important for settings with lots of air pollutants and people want to measure the amount of tiny particles or dust they’re exposed to day in and day out,” Javanmard said. “Miners, for example, could sample the environment they’re in.”