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Sensors could transmit vital signs around the clock

A new chapter in high-tech medicine is being written by electrical engineers at Oregon State University. A team led by Patrick Chiang has confirmed that an electronic technology called “ultrawideband” could lead to the development of sophisticated “body-area networks,” systems of wearable sensors and communication devices designed to track an individual’s health.

Such networks would offer continuous, real-time health diagnosis, experts say, to reduce the onset of degenerative diseases, save lives and cut health care costs. The ideal monitoring device would be small, worn on the body, low cost, and perhaps draw its energy from something as minor as body heat. But it would be able to transmit vast amounts of health information in real time and help to prevent or treat disease.

Illustration by Teresa Hall

Illustration by Teresa Hall

Sounds great in theory, but it’s not easy. If it were, the X Prize Foundation wouldn’t be trying to develop a Tricorder X Prize — inspired by the remarkable instrument of Star Trek fame — that would give $10 million to whomever can create a mobile wireless sensor and give billions of people around the world better access to low-cost, reliable medical monitoring and diagnostics.

“This type of sensing would scale down to the size of a bandage that you could wear around you,” says Chiang, an expert in wireless medical electronics and assistant professor in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

“The sensor might provide and transmit data on heart health, bone density, blood pressure or insulin status. Ideally, you could not only monitor health issues but also help prevent problems before they happen. Maybe detect arrhythmias, for instance, and anticipate heart attacks. Or, monitor the indoor location of an elderly person or the early onset of cognitive decline. Finally, it needs to be non-invasive and able to provide huge amounts of data while consuming little energy.”

Several startup companies such as Corventis and iRhythm have already entered the cardiac monitoring market.

In the EURASIP Journal on Wireless Communications and Networking, Chiang and his team reported that one of the key obstacles is the energy required to run the device. A type of technology called “ultrawideband” might have that capability if the receiver getting the data were within a “line of sight” and signals were not interrupted by passing through a human body. But even non-line of sight transmission might be possible using ultrawideband if lower transmission rates were required, they found. Collaborating on the research was Huaping Liu, an associate professor in EECS, and clinical researchers at the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology at the Oregon Health & Science University.

Patrick Chiang (Photo courtesy of the College of Engineering)

Patrick Chiang (Photo courtesy of the College of Engineering)

“The challenges are quite complex, but the potential benefit is huge and of increasing importance with an aging population,” Chiang says. “This is definitely possible. I could see some of the first systems being commercialized within the next three years.”

Chiang’s collaborators on projects to develop non-invasive wireless monitoring devices include colleagues at OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research, the Linus Pauling Institute and OHSU in Portland. Chiang also collaborates with researchers at Tsinghua and Fudan universities in China.

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Rachel Robertson contributed to this story.

Online: learn more about Patrick Chiang’s research.

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