Skin spews telltale gases for health trackers to tap

May 6, 2022 — We already have smartwatches and fitness trackers that can tell us things about our bodies, such as how many steps we take in the day, how well we sleep at night, and whether our blood pressure is in a healthy range.

Now scientists are conducting experiments to see if sensors can be added to wearables to tell us even more about our health based on gases released through our skin.

As part of the process to develop such sensors, scientists conducted some preliminary lab tests using a film made from plant tissue derivatives and electroactive plastic compounds. This film can bend when exposed to acetone, a gas secreted by the skin, researchers report in the journal PLOS One.

When scientists exposed the film to solutions containing water, ethanol and acetone, they noticed that the film warped in response to the chemicals, but not the water.

Acetone is a chemical found naturally in plants and trees, and it is also present in the human body through the breakdown of fat, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

People make more acetone when they follow a low-fat diet, but also when they are pregnant or have diabetes. Exercise, heavy drinking, and physical trauma can also lead to increased acetone levels in the body.

“Acetone has been shown not only to be exhaled with the breath, but also to be expelled by skin gas from accessible skin areas such as the hands, arms and fingers, allowing for convenient, non-invasive and continuous collection of acetone samples.” says senior study author Perena Gouma, PhD, an engineering professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Previously, scientists have confirmed that when people exhale higher levels of acetone, or release higher levels of acetone into their skin, they also have higher levels of acetone in their blood, Gouma says.

While some studies have shown it’s possible to measure acetone in human sweat, these sensors require large amounts of perspiration to get accurate readings and cannot function as continuous monitors, the researchers say.

The difference to measuring acetone from skin gases is that it takes very little gas to get a reading and can potentially be monitored around the clock to better identify changes over time.

“Distinguishing health problems through the skin is really the ultimate frontier,” says Gouma. “The project still has a few years to go. But in six months we should have a proof of concept, and in a year we want to test it on humans.”

If all goes well, the goal would be to turn this film into sensors that can be added to wearable devices, the research team says. It could work in smartwatches or fitness trackers, or in special devices worn on areas of the body that sweat less, such as behind the ear or on the fingernails.

While this idea has some potential, any device people can wear outside of clinical trials is likely a long way off, says Shalini Prasad, PhD, a professor and chief of the bioengineering department at the University of Texas, Dallas, who isn’t involved. was in the new study.

If human trials show a clear link between the levels of chemicals released by the skin and the levels of these chemicals circulating in the body, then there could one day be a chance to test skin gases to identify biomarkers for specific diseases. identify, Prasad says.

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