Is the future of cancer detection in a wearable device that looks like a watch?
A number of research projects on wearables are under way in the United States and elsewhere, including an effort by University at Buffalo engineers working with Intel Corp. and Garwood Medical Devices. The UB researchers have received a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to develop technology that combines implantable sensors, a wearable device and software to better identify and monitor such conditions as lung cancer.
"It's a huge opportunity," said Josep Jornet, assistant professor of electrical engineering at UB. "We have a much better chance of treating cancer if we can detect it early before a tumor develops."
The team is developing sensors smaller than the width of a human hair that would be implanted under the skin by blood vessels. The sensors, which will be designed in this research to detect lung cancer biomarkers in blood, will collect data detected by a network of tiny light-emitting devices inside a wrist band. The band then would transmit the data via Bluetooth to a smartphone or computer.
But don't look for this in the next iPhone update.
Equipment needed to make it happen, such as the lasers and light spectrum analyzers, now take up half a table in Jornet's lab. The researchers will have to make them much smaller and less expensive. What's more, the work involves pulling together all the pieces into a reliable wristband system that the body will safely tolerate and will communicate without someone's private health data getting hacked.
"It can work. We know the fundamental physics. But there are challenges," said Jornet.
Others similar efforts include the potential of deploying a wristband system in which tiny nanoparticles in blood attach to biomarkers for diseases. But Jornet said there is concern about the safety of particles that would spread everywhere in the body. The work here will attempt to get around the problem by placing sensors next to blood vessels.
“You can think of the sensor as a tiny tattoo — it won’t move — that will be placed on a blood vessel just under your skin near your wrist,” Garwood Medical Devices President and CEO Wayne Bacon said in a statement.
Likely candidates for such a device might include individuals at higher risk for cancer, such as those with a family history of the disease or who smoked cigarettes for a long time.
The project, which began Sept. 1 and also includes Roswell Park Cancer Institute as a consultant, may have applications for other diseases with biomarkers found in blood. It may also help monitor illnesses by providing more accurate data on the progression of diseases that's transmitted from a patient's home. The team is planning a series of tests to study how the sensor works in blood samples of lung cancer patients. Within three years, it plans to test the system in cadavers.