Skin-deep sensing

A new sensor from QLD-based company, WearOptimo, could provide medical professionals with a tool to forecast which COVID-19 patients are on the path to severe respiratory distress allowing earlier, more appropriate treatment.

Wearoptimo’s wearable sensors are worn as patches and delve just below the skin to accumulate information.
Credit: WearOptimo

The company’s platform technology looks just below the skin for certain biomarkers or proteins that can provide invaluable clues as to the health of a patient. The device is applied as a wearable sticker that can be worn for days while suppling constant information to health professionals.

The device, classed as a microwearable, features a series of microstructures that reach a hair’s width into the skin. This approach isn’t invasive enough to require any kind of formal procedure for it to be applied, but, by delving just below the skin, the patch can gain access to the rich source of biomarkers present inside of the body. Once the information is accumulated, it is sent to a medical professional’s smartphone or computer.

The company is already developing two types of sensor based on this platform – the first provides hydration information by looking for clues in the conductive properties of the skin’s interstitial fluid, while the second searches for key biological signals of disease.

This second application has recently generated a buzz due to the fact that it could be used to help predict if a patient with COVID-19 is likely to require intensive care. The patch can monitor how a patient’s immune system is reacting to the disease by measuring levels of a protein called IL-6. This inflammatory cytokine is produced by the body to help tackle infection but can cause damage to organs and tissue when too much of it is produced.

Early research has linked IL-6 to a variety of poor outcomes including inflammatory pneumonia, it’s been identified as a key discriminator between those COVID-19 patients who progress to critical illness or death and those who do not. The levels of IL-6 are typically very low in healthy people but the amount in the body can rise by 10 to 100 times in COVID-19 patients who go on to become the most critically ill – it’s part of what is termed a “cytokine storm”.

The device provides real-time monitoring of a patient’s IL-6 levels, over hours or days if necessary. “Continuous monitoring of IL-6 will yield insights into the systemic proinflammatory response, and inform on the risk of imminent cytokine storm, empowering clinicians to make improved management choices earlier, streamlining decisions to treat with IL-6 inhibitors,” Dr Anthony Brewer, Head of Research and Development at WearOptimo, explained. “This will have the beneficial effect of conserving global stocks, as well as reducing off-target side effect profiles in those unnecessarily treated.”

The team have been working with ANFF experts in ACT, Queensland, and Victoria over a number of years to develop the sensor’s platform architecture, utilising a plethora of cleanroom based nanofabrication techniques. WearOptimo is continuing to develop this innovative sensor and are preparing for human trials.