I have been saying for some time now that the next frontier in technology is the wearables market. As society becomes more obese and less healthy we want our technology to tell us just how unfit and unhealthy we are! Monitoring our health with a range of advanced devices certainly makes sense and, despite the fact that we ignore medical advice from our doctors, we might start listening to the warnings from our technology.
I am not sure whether this latest technology I am going to talk about is technically a wearable or is an integrable (not sure that term is meant to be used in this way but technology is developing rapidly).
For those that are slightly squeamish around receiving a needle then I suggest you look away now. This latest product is not just one needle. It consists of twenty-four needles! The device is about the diameter of a twenty-cent coin and is applied directly to your skin where the microneedles barely penetrate the surface of the skin. The microneedles are not trying to get to your blood vessels but instead are sensing the biomolecules in interstitial fluid – the fluid that fills the spaces between cells in our body. Research shows that biochemical levels measured in that fluid correlate with levels in your blood.
We now have a device stuck into our arm with a bunch of tiny needles. The researchers say it isn’t painful because each needle is only one fifth the thickness of a human hair. Now what do we do? Different enzymes are on the tips of the microneedles and they react with glucose, alcohol and lactate to generate tiny electric currents. A reusable electronic device is clipped on to the back of the microneedles which analyses these electronic sensors and then communicates wirelessly to an app.
It is a mini-lab on your arm. By looking at an app on your phone you can have continuous monitoring of your blood sugar levels, check if you have had too much to drink (assuming you aren’t too drunk to open the app and read the screen) and even track your muscle fatigue during a workout. The reusable electronic ‘brain’ is rechargeable wirelessly using the same charger that you use to recharge your phone wirelessly and the microneedle ‘patch’ needs to be replaced each time you apply it to your skin.
The device is still at the prototype stage but testing has been conducted on a variety of volunteers where the three indicators of glucose, alcohol and lactate were measured with the patch and regularly compared to commercial tests of those same three markers and the results were consistently within scope. Just pause for a moment here. Can you imagine the researchers asking for volunteers to test alcohol levels and lactate levels? I can just see the signs they posted up at the University of California San Diego. I can see a photo with a long line in front of the ‘test alcohol levels’ sign with students imagining a day of free drinks supplied just for putting a patch on your arm and the corresponding sign with ‘test lactate levels’ much shorter as the appeal of doing strenuous exercise while being monitored was significantly lower. I digress.
Obviously the initial target market is people with diabetes. The number of people in the world with diabetes rose from 108 million in 1980 to 537 million today. Diabetes caused 6.7 million deaths last year.
I can also see uses for people with problems with alcohol and athletes trying to fine tune their training regime using lactate levels as an indicator.