The Science of Sweat: Skin Biosensors

strong>Some of the coolest things about science fiction technology, in my opinion, are the fictitious medical devices.  Those fanciful pieces of machinery or medicine that can do – sometimes with one push of a button – what teams of current medical professionals cannot.

One of my favorite examples of this is in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  Dr. McCoy is in a hospital in the 1980s (they traveled back in time; it’s a long story, just bear with me).  He sees an old woman in a hospital bed in the hallway, who is struggling through kidney dialysis.

“Dialysis?!” Mr. McCoy exclaims indignantly.  “What is this, the Dark Ages?”

He hands her a pill, tells her to swallow it and moves on.  Later on, you see this woman in the hospital, but she is sitting up in bed, smiling from ear to ear.  She spots McCoy and exclaims in jubilation: “The doctor gave me a pill, and I grew a new kidney!”

Unfortunately, science fiction medicine is just that: as fantastic as it is fictional. But is this futuristic science tech really so far-fetched?

The advances in prosthetics are growing by leaps and bounds.  Laser technology is being developed and perfected as we speak in various stages in military research laboratories.  Now it seems our medical advances are striding into science fiction territory as well.

This is a skin biosensor.

Photo: (U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory photo illustration/Released)

(U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory photo illustration/Released)

Looks like an adhesive bandage, feels like an adhesive bandage and works like a medical scanner. This little device is being developed and perfected at the Air Force Research Lab for the purpose of changing the way we obtain, record and utilize real time medical stats about our bodies.

Dr. Josh Hagen, Ph.D, is a chemical engineer for AFRL at the 711th Human Performance Wing.  His first research area is looking at novel solutions for rapid to real-time biomarker sensor development, resulting in several sensor platforms for detection in biofluids.  He now leads a research program in Human Centric Sensor Systems, which develops technologies for physiological monitoring in multiple missions in the Air Force and Defense Department.

Recently I sat down with Dr. Hagen to get the scoop on these sensors, and what they could mean for the future of tech-forward medicine.

“The overall concept with all of this is really creating a dashboard for the human life.” – Dr. Josh Hagen, Ph.D.

“Similar to what you have in your car, when you’re looking down at your dashboard you get up to the second information on the performance and health of your car.  We’re trying to do that for the human body.”

The way that works in a car, he says, is that you’re looking at a display where a bunch of sensors throughout the car are feeding it information.  The speedometer tells you how fast you’re going; the tachometer tells you the RPMs.  The biosensor functions insomuch the same capacity, only with things like heart rate and respiration rate.

The human performance augmentation is an emerging concept based on the ability to sense and assess human health status in real-time using wearable biosensors.  We’re talking vitals, hydration, even medical problems, if possible.

Graphic: (DoD graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

(DoD graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

The goal is to enhance warfighter performance before mission safety, efficiency and outcome is compromised.

“So how can we create sensors to measure things on the human body, but in a form factor where it’s kind of innate to life.  We look at the Band-Aid as the ideal form factor?  If you put a Band-Aid on something, you generally just put it on and forget about it.  We’re looking for the same for our form factor.”

These sensors are electronics – a flat chip the size of a memory card – that are embedded into wearable bandages, which are designed to give you the information that was once only provided by a medical scan or a blood test.

The biosensor is designed to serve two purposes:

  1. Vital sign measurements – heart rate, respiration rate, blood oximetry, etc.
  2. Vital fluid measurements – things that could be determined through a conventional blood test.

“That’s what’s really novel about what we’re doing at AFRL,” Dr. Hagen tells me.  “If you go into a doctor’s office and something is wrong, they will take a big vial of blood.  They’ll take your vital signs but that doesn’t tell you exactly what’s going on.  It’s really what’s in that blood.”

They’re trying to come up with novel ways to get away from the concept of taking a 10ml sample of blood, taking that to a central lab, doing the analysis and then waiting hours or days later for the answer.  They want to do all of that on a wearable bandage.

Furthermore, they want to get those answers not with blood, but with sweat.

“We want it to be completely non-invasive, so you don’t have to break the skin,” he says.  “This is a key part of what we do in our lab; understanding the science of sweat, what all is in sweat that is measurable, how does that correlate to blood biomarkers, to performance, to medical applications, those kind of things.”

The electronic bandage is designed to sense those sorts of things in real-time, and AFRL is looking at this as one alternative to blood draws.  Needle-adverse people, rejoice!  The biosensor could detect anything from high blood pressure, to dehydration, to stress levels (cortisol spikes, etc.), to fatigue or possibly even pregnancy.


That’s the part that gets me, the potential applications for this.  Anything that can be detected through sweat, basically, could be detected through this, and that could be a lot of things.

There’s been some medical literature and speculation, Dr. Hagen tells me, that anything water soluble in blood will be present in sweat (within adequate concentrations).  The researchers at AFRL believe that the more we know about medical science, the more that theory is proving itself true.  Going back to good ol’ country doctor Leonard McCoy and his affinity for traditional practices, I wonder what he would have to say about these biosensors.

“We’re trying to really develop the wearable tricorder,” says Dr. Hagen.

The Air Force is also working with cost effectiveness in mind.  By creating this in a military lab, they save money and resources, and they’re creating something that could convert into a commercial product.

“We’re really trying to get this technology pushed to where it can be a real product,” Dr. Hagen explains.  “Both in the military and commercial side.”

These sensors are designed to work in two different ways: they can record the information on the bandage chip itself, and they can also send information to a central online system.

Photo: The recording biosensor mobile medical screen could look something like this screen capture of the "Scientific SciFi Scanner" app, designed to look like the Star Trek tricorder.  (DoD screen capture by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

The recording biosensor mobile medical screen could look something like this screen capture of the “Scientific SciFi Scanner” app, designed to look like the Star Trek tricorder. (DoD screen capture by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

Utilizing smart phone technologies, Dr. Hagen says you might be able to check out your vitals by having the info sent directly to your phone.  In the event that smart phones aren’t available, or even an internet connection, the data can also be stored on the device itself.

That way, when the wearer is able, that information can be downloaded and observed, and won’t be lost due to poor signal strength.

“I think it’s really the high wear-ability combined with extremely relevant data,” Dr. Hagen says.  “There are a lot of things on the market today, like pedometers, but we want to take it to the next level.  Getting really in-depth vital sign information and bio-marker data.  It takes it to the next level.”

Talk about being self-aware.

So I guess the real question here is, would you wear a medical bioscanner?  If you’re in the military, you just might get the chance to make it happen.  AFRL is testing medical field monitors, where they attached the patch to some service members and let the data flow into their data aggregate computers.

Also if you’re running the Air Force Marathon in September, you might get the chance to beta test the bio-sensors.  They’re going to have several of them available for this, ahem, test run.  Regardless, it seems like the biosensor bandage technology is about to hit the ground running.

“We like to have our finger on the pulse, quite literally, with this technology,” Dr. Hagen tells me.

In the words of the oft-tricorder clad Mr. Spock, FASCINATING.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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The Science of Sweat: Skin Biosensors