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Experimental skin patch tests sweat for health as you work out

This experimental skin patch collects and analyzes sweat to track health while people exercise, beaming the results to their smartphones. | John A. Rogers, Northwestern University

Researchers are creating a skin patch that can test people’s sweat while they exercise and beam the results to their smartphones to help track health and fitness.

“Sweat has biochemical components within it that tell us a lot about physiological health,” says John A. Rogers, who directs Northwestern University’s Center for Bio-Integrated Electronics.

The experimental gadget goes well beyond activity monitors like the Fitbit. A little bigger than a quarter, it’s almost like a tiny lab stuck to the skin — and a new study led by a Rogers found it worked on sweaty bicyclists, sticking even during a long-distance race in Arizona.

Available wearable technology helps people track calories, activity and heart rate, but a wearable biosensor would be “radically different,” according to Rogers.

For simple fitness purposes, it could give an early warning that it’s time to replenish electrolytes before feeling dehydrated.

Eventually, with additional research, Rogers envisions more sophisticated use of such devices, such as real-time monitoring of how the body adjusts during military training, or even to screen people for diseases such as diabetes or cystic fibrosis.

Rogers, who did much of the research while at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been working to develop electronic devices that can stretch and twist with the body. The skin-like sweat patch adds a capability called microfluidics, capturing and analyzing tiny amounts of body fluid.

Here’s how it works: Stick the patch on the skin, and start moving. Tiny channels collect perspiration and route it to different compartments where it interacts with chemicals that change color to reflect sweat loss, the perspiration’s acidity level and concentrations of chloride, glucose and lactate.

Together, those measurements can indicate such things as hydration levels or electrolyte loss. Hold a smartphone over the patch, and an app takes a picture of the colors and interprets what they mean.

For the latest research, Rogers’ team stuck patches to the arms and backs of 21 healthy volunteers. Nine rode exercise bikes in a gym to compare the sweat patches’ performance with the decidedly lower-tech method of sweat-testing used today — taping on absorbent pads and carting the resulting wet samples to a laboratory. For a more real-world test, the other 12 bicyclists wore the patches while competing in a long-distance outdoor race in Tucson.

The patches stayed in place and worked even in the challenging outdoor race, and the patches’ biochemical test results agreed with the indoor bikers’ conventional sweat tests, the researchers reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Rogers’ sweat patches are designed for one-time use over a few hours. His research used an early version that analyzed sweat just once during the exercise, but he’s now testing a design capable of multiple measurements over time.

“It seems really practical,” says Zhenan Bao, a Stanford University chemical engineering professor who also researches novel biomedical materials but wasn’t involved in the work on the sweat patch.

By just looking at a color change, Bao says, “Such a patch allows people to now have an opportunity to understand their health and how it changes depending on activities.”

Other research groups around the country also are pursuing wearable biosensors.