NSF funds interdisciplinary research on wearable systems for weight management

Posted: September 1, 2020

A team of researchers led by Engineering Professor Perena Gouma has been awarded a four-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Health program to develop wearable skin sensors to monitor metabolism and weight management.

Perena Gouma

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 through 2018, the prevalence of obesity in the United States increased from 30.5% to 42.4%, and the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2%. Obesity-related health risks include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, which are leading causes of preventable, premature death.

Our bodies release a small amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through our skin, including acetone, which is known to correlate with metabolic rates and fat burning. Gouma’s team aims to apply novel engineering approaches to continuously monitor acetone levels. Their wearable sensor technology will be easy to use, noninvasive (no microneedles) and not dependent on sweat.

“Our objective is to transform health and medical practices through noninvasive, personalized, affordable and continuous diagnostics,” Gouma said, “allowing users to monitor their fat metabolism and control their weight loss, and share their results through smart connected networks, thereby helping manage obesity or metabolic disorders.”

Project co-investigators include Ohio State Engineering Professors Asimina Kiourti and Manoj Srinivasan, and Rutgers University Professor Lisa Klein.

At the core of this wearable monitoring technology is a novel material designed to exhibit reversible actuating behavior when exposed to skin acetone. This material will be integrated with an electromagnetic transducer to convert shape deformations into voltage changes. All components of the wearable skin strip will be isolated from the environment via advanced water and gas-proof glassy materials.

Human subject experiments will be performed to obtain an accurate dynamical relationship between acetone and fat metabolism, and for calibrating and testing the wearable technology. The project also includes a social networking component to process skin acetone measurements from individuals in a group and provide useful feedback on behavioral modifications.

This work complements Gouma’s ongoing research in breath gas sensing and development of diagnostic devices.

“There is a need for technological breakthroughs that lead to easy-to-use, inexpensive and robust devices capable of instantaneously calculating metabolic rates and body functions, such as fat burning over muscle,” said Gouma. “This can be done by measuring ketone bodies either in exhaled breath or in skin-released gas.”

The goal of the federal interagency Smart and Connected Health program is to accelerate the development and integration of innovative computer and information science and engineering approaches to support the transformation of health and medicine. Approaches that partner technology-based solutions with biomedical and biobehavioral research are supported by multiple agencies of the federal government including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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