Editor’s Note: Dr. Sonia Sousa is CEO and Co-Founder of Kenzen, a startup that creates next-gen wearable diagnostics based on sweat analysis. Dr. Sousa founded several companies and has over 15 issued and pending patents in the US and worldwide (in photonics, predictive models, lasers, spectroscopy and more). With a PhD in Photonics and Neural Networks, Dr. Sousa is committed to advancing precision medicine and preventing health issues through wearable diagnostics that are clinically relevant, meaningful to consumers and game-changing for athletes.
Reliable and completely non-invasive, sweat analysis will completely change the way we diagnose and monitor health, optimize performance, and save billions in healthcare costs
How might your favorite team perform if athletes were playing at their absolute best? Could coaches and trainers pre-empt costly injuries by pulling players off the field before they cramp-up or suffer a strain? Imagine that you could get a notification before you get hurt, sick, or develop a more serious medical condition. Would your behavior change?
The recent Stanford U research (among other studies) points to the fact that all of these scenarios may soon become a reality with future wearables that help predict and prevent disease. Moreover, this reality may reach us even sooner than expected with the key role in this major change to health monitoring (and costs!) played by…sweat.
Medical journals have been talking about the value of sweat for nearly 50 years. Readily available, sweat has a number of important biomarkers and knows nearly as much about our state of health as blood. For example, if you look at the diagnostics around cystic fibrosis, sweat analysis is the “gold standard” for detecting this disease. Replacing costly doctor visits and painful lab-based blood tests with non-invasive sweat analysis would bring endless benefits for personal health. However, several major challenges have been holding this progress back.
First of all, figuring out a way to collect sweat outside of a lab in a cost-effective way and without contamination. Second, coming up with technology to monitor and analyze sweat in real time and in combination with other vital parameters. The latter is important to really change the way we track our health and help predict avoidable health conditions based on real-time personalized data.
What I’m about to tell you is that these massive challenges have finally been solved. Sweat is officially the new blood, and 2017 will be the year when it becomes a big authority in injury prevention, healthcare and wearable diagnostics. Analysts predict that the global wearable patch market will grow at an impressive rate of more than 88% between 2016 and 2020 and surpass $5B, citing the rise in healthcare costs and lifestyle diseases. The U.S. Army and the Air Force are interested. Professional sports teams like San Francisco 49ers and FC Dallas are already piloting sweat analysis biosensors that can help prevent injuries in real time.
Here are just a few things that you can track using sweat:
– Important biomarkers like sodium that can help predict and prevent non-contact injuries like ion imbalance, disorientation, fatigue, exhaustion and even muscle strains. We’re seeing reports, almost weekly now, of how issues like these are affecting players in the NBA, NFL and MLB – before, during and after games.
– Heat-related issues like fluid loss leading to dehydration. This is also highly relevant for athletes, people working in extreme conditions, mining and factories, kitchens and other hot, high-up, deep-down places.
– Potassium which is of big interest for continuous measurement. We need it for our hearts to beat, and there are scenarios where marathoners are collapsing at finish lines due to potassium deficiency.
– Glucose level which is super important to watch for people combating prediabetes or living with diabetes. Glucose also represents your overall energy level and could help track energy expenditure or metabolic rate.
I’ve personally been interested in the topic of sweat analysis for a very long time. I was with a company that was using biomarkers in saliva for the early detection of disease. That got us thinking about what kind of valuable and actionable health data could be extracted from other biologic fluids that are much easier to collect than blood. Sweat became top of mind.
Taking on invasive blood tests
Until recently, blood has been the most obvious choice in diagnostics. Think about it: a person with diabetes pricks his finger to get blood four times a day — that’s 1460 finger pricks a year. If you don’t have a life-changing diagnosis like diabetes, are you willing to continuously prick your finger to monitor health? The answer is an obvious “no,” but now there is a better way.
Sweat is already analyzed at sport performance labs. A person gets weighed before and after a workout session and sweat samples are soaked up onto a piece of gauze. The chemical analysis of those samples can take hours or days. However, this method of going to a physical location is hardly different than visiting a doctor for a blood test – it’s a point a time snapshot – and it doesn’t allow us to track changes in our signals on a continuous basis.
Hospitals have all these great technologies for deeper understanding of our health, but the frequency of our access to them just isn’t sufficient enough to predict or prevent a health issue. I was recently speaking to a group of about 50 people and asked: “How many of you have a physical once a year?” Only five hands went up.
At the same time we know that people want to continuously track their health and are buying devices for that. Only to quickly discover that existing trackers don’t offer a lot of meaningful data. Unless you can quantify a goal you are trying to reach (i.e. 10,000 steps), your tracker will probably end up somewhere in a drawer.
What we need is a combination of exhaustive lab-based diagnostics and the convenience of wearables. A powerful way to continuously analyze various measurements together, over a period of time. That’s how people can really understand where they are in that spectrum from “well” to “sick.” Measuring heart rate, blood pressure, hydration level, core body temperature, cortisol, glucose, lactate levels and more at once can help predict and prevent illness and even measure the impact of different therapies.
We know that many teams are already using urine tests, and players often view this method as too intrusive. But if you look at biological fluids that are easily available for analysis (like tears and saliva), you begin to see that the future of wearable sensors is important and integral to precision medicine. Right now sweat is incredibly intriguing and compelling for wearable diagnostics. It can help us avoid the multiple blood samples and paying for lots of hospital visits.
There are conditions that are far more difficult to measure in blood like hyponatremia (low sodium level in the blood) and could be tracked continuously in a non-invasive way via sweat analysis. And the great news is: wearable diagnostics using non-invasive sweat analysis will soon become available to everyone. An affordable and always accessible Personal Health Lab that’s really powerful.