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Science and Technology

Star Trek-like Tricorder in the works

The first step in developing a Tricorder device may only be a few years away. UC researcher Jason Heikenfeld is testing his band-aid like patch. With just a few drops of sweat, it will monitor health and diagnose disease on people and in the lab using artificial skin that mimics sweat. Ann Thompson reports in "Focus on Technology."

“Captain, we’re picking up very light tricorder readings, approximately 700 meters from here.”

The Star Trek way was to detect information about the unknown with a hand-held device. It could scan for geological, meteorological and biological purposes as demonstrated by this toy from Diamond Select Toys.

Imagine monitoring your own health and diagnosing disease with just an electronic patch and a smartphone. It’s in the works inside a UC lab with initial funding from the Air Force Research Lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and 20 other partners. Unlike other so-called “tricorder devices,” this one uses sweat to determine medical conditions.

Squash is a very sweaty game and that is why Jason Heikenfeld met me at the UC Recreation Center to talk about the benefits of sweat. New findings suggest that most of the biomarkers found in blood are available in sweat, in some cases at higher concentrations. So that means if you have an illness or condition, you can detect it with a couple of drops of sweat. No needle, no complications.

“And so that is sort of the Holy Grail that’s been talked about for a while now in medicine. How do you get access in an easy and convenient way to all these molecules in the body and you’ve got that. You’ve got all the knowledge you’ve desired.”

Heikenfeld is a UC professor in the school of electronic and computing systems.

In the past sweat has been saved for things like sensing electrolyte balance. But since it can show almost everything blood does, Heikenfeld is banking on this easily accessible fluid and recently tested people on a treadmill. He has four prototypes. The first has no electronics and is based on paper and plastics. It collects sweat on a bandaid every two minutes. He removes it and takes it to a lab for analysis. The second sample is designed to replace blood draws at the doctor’s office. It stimulates sweat and then an instrument reads it. The third is for first responders. It has a strap with sweat stimulation and detects and diagnoses a stroke in less than 5 minutes. The final version is the tricorder. It’s an electronic patch that communicates the information to your smartphone and potentially to your doctor.

“So right now we’ve embedded RFID and sensor chips in an actual band-aid, essentially and we’ve done that collaborating with 3M, who makes a lot of the medical textiles. In the future you’ll probably go to more powerful connections, like Blue Tooth. And so RFID in some cases and for all the HIPPA requirements, you’ll need to have a more secure data transfer.”

The Air Force sees plenty of military applications.

“Their problem was pretty simple. You have a fighter jet and you have 100 million dollars worth of technology. And you have a human there which has very little technology investment in it to improve performance. So they said, what sort of technology should they be developing to kind of bring the ratio of investment of technology in the machines and things like that into parody with the performance of the human? So if you can monitor the performance of the human than you can find ways to improve.”

On the battlefield if a chemical agent has been released the device could potentially detect exposure and warn to get everyone out of the way as soon as possible.

Testing on the first prototype is underway. Because Heikenfeld said it’s a pain to get somebody to sweat everytime he wants to test the patch, his team has invented the first artificial skin to mimic sweat.

“and it has all the skin texture, pore diversity and all these features so we can actually put our devices on this artificial skin and do simulation as well. So we’ve spent a ton of time basically, building up the real tools we’ll need to move at a very fast pace.”

A few of the prototypes electronically stimulate sweat, so the patient doesn’t have to.

The paper and plastics patch could be on the market in a couple of years. The other patches could take 10 to 20 years before they are commercially available.