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New Digital Health Research Focuses on Gas Emissions

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   May 09, 2022

Researchers at The Ohio State University are developing digital health technology that can track one's health through a small device worn on the ear or finger by measuring small amounts of gas emitted through the skin.

The next generation of digital health wearable might focus on body gases.

Fart and BO jokes aside, researchers at The Ohio State University are working on skin sensors that detect gaseous acetone leaving the skin. Those emissions could contain biomarkers for a wide range of health issues, including diabetes and heart disease.

“Discerning health issues through the skin is really the ultimate frontier,” Pelagia-Iren Gouma, a member of the research team and professor of materials science and engineering at OSU, said in a press release issued by the university. “The project still has a couple of years to go. But in six months, we should have proof of concept and in a year, we’d like to have it tested in people.”

The research, supported by the National Science Foundation and recently published in PLOS One, points to an increasing interest in wearable sensors for remote monitoring, and the wide variety of form factors in that field. While smartwatches and fitness bands have long been the most popular, digital health researchers and companies have used rings, smartglasses, hearing aids, patches, bandages, tattoos, and even sensor-embedded clothing to track one’s health.

Gourna and her team are working on a small device that would fit around the ear or on a fingernail and track acetone emissions. They’re using a film-like material made from derivatives of plant cellulose and electroactive polymers that reacts to the acetone.

“We found significant bias toward bending more upon exposure to certain chemicals over others,” Anthony Annerino, a graduate student in materials science and engineering and lead author of the study, said in the news release. Using AI and machine learning tools, the platform could enable the tracking of long-term changes to one’s metabolism, and it could be modified to track ethanol, which can signal liver disease.

“This is an area of research that hasn’t been nearly as well developed yet, because we’re just now producing the technology to measure lower concentrations of these gases with high selectivity,” he said. 

Annerino also noted that many wearables track biomarkers through electrical signals applied to sweat, which means that a user has to sweat – sometimes profusely – to get enough data. And while tracking biomarkers through someone’s breath has been done through mHealth devices like a breathalyzer, that requires “active intent” and only gives a momentary glimpse of one’s health.

He and his team contend that detecting gases through the skin can be less intrusive.

“It is completely non-invasive, and completely passive on the behalf of the user,” he said.

Eric Wicklund is the Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.

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