Tech companies race to launch a new breed of wearable devices that aid in medical research
by Scott Jung
Wearable health devices are currently one of the hottest trends in technology. By some estimates, the wearables industry will reach $50 billion over the next few years, and it seems like every day, there is a new device that encourages you to exercise more, slouch less, or breathe deeper.
When used dutifully, these wearables can offer beneficial advice to help meet a user’s personal health goals. But can wearable devices also help solve some of the world’s biggest health problems?
Over the last year, major tech companies like Google and Samsung have developed wearable devices - stuff never before intended to be worn on consumers’ wrists. These devices contain medical-grade sensors in conjunction with cloud computing and sophisticated algorithms to collect large amounts of extremely accurate biometric data. And they’re available exclusively to researchers to better understand disease and engineers to create better medical devices.
Google Cardiac & Activity Sensor
The Silicon Valley search giant made a statement last month that it wants to get more involved with your health with the release of its cardiac and activity sensor. Developed by Google’s life sciences team and available only to researchers as an investigational device, this wrist-worn wearable contains sensors to track a continuous stream of biological data, such as pulse, activity level, skin temperature, and an ECG. It also contains sensors to capture environmental data, such as noise level and light exposure, providing useful contextual information about the user’s health.
According to Google, the goal of the device is to discover which sensors working in parallel provide the most relevant data to the physician. From there, Google hopes that researchers can not only better study the progression and treatment of a disease, but can also help develop and build better wearable sensors for larger disease populations. It’s all part of Google’s mission to “move health care from reactive to proactive”.
Empatica E4 Wristband
In 2013, before Google announced a wearable for the study of disease, and before Apple redefined the iPhone as a robust tool for clinical research, there was Empatica. Based out of Milano, Italy, Empatica developed the E3 wristband. Devised from a sensor that was originally designed to detect seizures, the E3 was promoted as the most accurate health tracker and could count MIT, NASA, and Microsoft as some of their customers.
Since then, they’ve released an updated tracker, the E4, which contains a 3-axis accelerometer, photoplethysmography sensor to track heart rate, electrodermal activity sensor to monitor factors related to stress, and an infrared skin thermometer. It was designed specifically for use by researchers in clinical research studies, as the E4 only provides raw data meant to be interpreted with 3rd party software or programs written with Empatica’s API’s. Empatica is also seeking FDA clearance as an approved medical device, a rarity among health wearables.
While Samsung has had modest success with its consumer-oriented line of Gear Fit trackers, they’ve been using technology to improve our health in other ways as well. Their latest contender is the Simband, a wearable that’s based on Samsung’s Gear watch design and contains various sensors to measure a user’s biometric data.
While this sounds like basically every other wearable fitness band out there, Simband won’t be commercialized. Simband is meant to be a platform that will allow wearables developers to build smarter devices. Developers can use the Simband’s sensors to ensure that they are accurately collecting data. Some of the sensors included are an accelerometer, gyroscope, ECG, galvanic skin response sensor, multiple optical sensors to measure pulse/heart rate, and a skin surface thermometer. In turn, companies can use the measured data to make better apps and devices.
The benefit is that wearables companies can be confident that they are developing on Samsung’s open and universal platform, and are collecting data using highly accurate and reliable sensors.
One of the most technologically-advanced wearables being developed is one that attempts to mimic a type of artwork that goes back thousands of years.
Known as the BioStamp, this wearable in development from Cambridge, Massachusetts based MC10, can best be described as an electronic tattoo. The basic BioStamp is about the size of a quarter and is built out of technologically advanced stretchable circuits supported by a thin sheet of rubber, making them practically unnoticeable to the wearer. They’re waterproof and breathable, costs only a few dimes when manufactured at scale, and lasts a week before the normal shedding of skin cells causes it to fall off.
The BioStamp is actually a flexible platform; while all the models have a similar form factor and utilize NFC for power and telemetry, MC10 is developing sensors for the BioStamp that can measure body temperature, light exposure, pulse rate, blood-oxygen levels, sweat, blood pressure, and even signals from the brain.
Most recently, MC10 teamed up with the University of Rochester to test the BioStamp in clinical settings and help develop disease-specific algorithms for smarter predictive health analytics. They’re hoping that the BioStamp’s smaller footprint and more versatile form factor can collect more accurate biological information from parts of the body other than the wrist.
While we wrote about Apple’s ResearchKit previously, Apple since has shared significant updates on the success of its official venture into health technology.
As a refresher, ResearchKit is an open-source software framework that allows medical researchers to leverage the technological power and popularity of the iPhone to create apps that gather data and help them gain further insight into various diseases. Study participants can sign informed consent documents, perform active tasks, and complete questionnaires and surveys all on the iPhone or iPad.
Since launching in March, thousands of iOS users have signed up for the half-dozen apps developed using ResearchKit. Stanford’s “MyHeart Counts” app reportedly received more than 11,000 signups less than 24 hours after ResearchKit was first announced. Other ResearchKit apps include Sage Bionetworks’/University of Rochester’s “Parkinson mPower” app to study Parkinson disease using voice and motion analysis, and Massachusetts General Hospital’s “GlucoSuccess” app to learn more about diabetes (editor’s note - I’m intimately involved with Mount Sinai’s Asthma Health app, which was announced alongside these other ResearchKit apps).
Most recently, UCSF kicked off a groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind study with an app called “PRIDE Study” to learn more about the health of LGBTQ people.
There are some concerns about the iPhone collecting inaccurate data due to rogue button taps or someone else using the phone, and some claim that iPhone owners are better educated and have higher incomes than Android owners, which could lead to potential bias. But ResearchKit is open-source, so one can assume Android versions can be developed. And the framework for e-consent that’s now gained traction will allow many future research apps to be released on smartphone platforms. Finally, the iPhone’s enormous popularity will undoubtedly allow researchers to tap into populations and collect amounts of data that with traditional research methods would be impossible.
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