Revolutionizing health monitoring, Wei Gao’s wearable biosensors use human sweat analysis to provide real-time insights into individual health. Unlike traditional methods, these biosensors offer non-invasive health monitoring, allowing for continuous data collection on biomarkers, amino acids, vitamins, metabolites, and more. This technology empowers early detection, classification, and prognosis of abnormal health conditions, paving the way for personalized healthcare. Through close collaboration with medical centers, Gao’s biosensors have been evaluated in diverse patient groups, ranging from metabolic syndrome to COVID-19 cases. The integration of wearable biosensors into daily life holds the promise of enhancing precision medicine, improving patient outcomes, and transforming healthcare delivery.
Which wall does your research break?
Early detection and classification of the prognosis and severity of abnormal health conditions with wearable sensors followed by timely intervention are crucial in health outcomes. Unlike most previously reported wearable sensors that mainly tracked physical activities and vital signs, my wearable biosensor enables real-time and fast detection of accessible biomarkers from the human body by analyzing human sweat (without the need for invasive blood draw), and allows for the collection of large-scale information about the individual’s dynamic health status at the molecular level. The technical challenges to realizing non-invasive wearable biosensing for personalized healthcare include: Can we mass-produce high-performance wearable biosensors for practical daily usage? Can we realize autonomous sweat induction across physical activities without the need for any vigorous exercise (toward practical health monitoring applications)? Can we monitor a broad spectrum of extremely low levels of clinically relevant biomarkers automatically using wearable biosensors? Can we demonstrate the practical personalized healthcare applications of the wearable sensor toward disease prevention and management? I have developed wearable sensors to address these challenges through materials, chemistry and technological innovations. We demonstrated the use of laser-engraving to fabricate multimodal microfluidic wearable sensor patches at large scale and low cost, including laser-engraved-graphene-based highly sensitive chemical and physical sensors for continuous data collection. By integrating a miniaturized iontophoresis module into the wireless wearable system, we are able to autonomously induce sweat throughout the day (even during sleep) and efficiently sample sweat through microfluidics with high temporal resolution and minimized influence from evaporation. We also proposed a universal wearable biosensing strategy based on a judicious combination of the mass-producible laser-engraved graphene, electrochemically synthesized redox-active nanoreporters, and molecularly imprinted polymer (MIP)-based ‘artificial antibodies’, as well as unique in situ regeneration and calibration technologies. This approach enables the demonstration of sensitive, selective and continuous monitoring of a wide range of trace-level biomarkers including all essential amino acids, vitamins, metabolites, lipids, and drugs. In addition, through incorporating nanomaterials-modified immunosensors and aptamer sensors into our wearable system, we demonstrated fully automatic, in situ, and wireless analysis of picomolar-level protein and hormone biomarkers for personalized healthcare. Working closely with clinical collaborators, I have successfully evaluated our wearable biosensors in patients with metabolic syndrome, diabetes, gout, COPD, heart failure, cancers, acute infection, and COVID-19. Overall, our wearable biosensor enables continuous non-invasive molecular data collection in daily activities and opens exciting new avenues in personalized healthcare.
What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?
The increasing research interest in personalized medicine promises to revolutionize traditional medical practices. Wearable sensors allow continuous and at-home health monitoring, which is particularly important in the COVID-19 pandemic or post-COVID eras. Early detection and classification of the prognosis and severity of abnormal health conditions with wearable sensors followed by timely intervention are crucial in health outcomes. At present, commercially available wearable sensors are only capable of tracking an individual’s physical activities and vital signs (such as heart rate) and fail to provide insight into the user’s health state at molecular levels. Current gold standards of molecular-based diagnostics heavily rely on blood analyses that are invasive and episodic, often requiring physical visits to medical facilities, labor-intensive sample processing, and delicate instrumentation. Human sweat contains a wealth of chemicals that can reflect the body’s physiological state. The transition from blood analysis to wearable sweat analysis could provide a non-invasive means of precision medicine. Moreover, affordable wireless health-monitoring devices will also lead to major improvements in patient monitoring, particularly in developing countries or rural areas where medical resources are limited, unavailable, expensive, and ineffective. Thus I became very passionate about developing wearable biosensors that can non-invasively monitor various biomarkers from the skin by analyzing sweat during daily activities. Instead of invasive blood analysis, skin-interfaced microfluidic wearable sweat biosensors analyze a broad spectrum of biomarkers (including metabolites, ions, nutrients, hormones, etc.) and provide insightful personalized information for a broad range of fundamental investigations and clinical applications.
In what ways does society benefit from your research?
Our research provides exciting opportunities in advancing wearable biosensors toward their practical applications in personalized healthcare. Working closely with clinical collaborators at various Medical Centers, I have successfully evaluated our wearable biosensors in patients with metabolic syndrome, diabetes, gout, COPD, heart failure, cancers, acute infection, and COVID-19. We demonstrated proof-of-concept applications of our devices in metabolic syndrome monitoring, gout management, stress and anxiety assessment, therapeutic drug personalization, systemic inflammation monitoring, and Cystic Fibrosis diagnosis. This could enable remote patient monitoring at home, provide early diagnosis and warnings of abnormal health monitoring, and allow timely intervention. Moreover, I believe that the large sets of molecular data collected by these wearables, when coupled with big data analysis or machine learning, can open the door for a variety of personalized health monitoring and clinical diagnostic applications. Overall, the personalized data collected from our skin-interfaced wearable biosensors will serve as essential building blocks for personalized and precision medicine by enabling early warning and timely intervention. At a personal level, the insights provided by wearable biosensors on an individual’s health status encourage users to take an active role in health management. At the same time, the synergy between future consumer-facing wearable products with clinical-grade medical devices is expected to contribute to a connected network for researchers and clinicians and provide comprehensive insights into an individual patient. Ultimately, the seamless integration of wearable biosensors into a patient’s daily life and care delivery process is envisioned to enhance precision medicine by allowing the timely initiation of personalized treatment to maximize health outcomes on an individual basis.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?
I hope my research could result in affordable wireless health-monitoring devices that lead to improvements in patient monitoring, particularly for developing countries or rural areas where medical resources are limited, unavailable, expensive, and ineffective. Another attractive vision of wearable sensors in personalized healthcare is to heterogeneously integrate a wide range of sensor networks (e.g. biomolecules, vital signs) on small wearable patches that can continuously and non-invasively monitor the user’s health during daily activities. Big data analytics and machine learning tools can be used towards parsing the vast time series of multiplexed sensor data from these population studies to identify subtle patterns and correlations. The resulting system, coupled with the big data mined from this technology, will supplant traditional reactive, episodic healthcare with predictive and proactive diagnostics. Such technology can pave the way for future development in wearable sensors for personalized, real-time health analysis. In certain cases, upon further investigation and development, such non-invasive wearable biosensors can potentially be used as a counterpart to blood testing not only for patients in medical applications but also for the general public in daily life. Through cohort studies using the technology development of wearable and flexible electronics for continuous molecular analysis, we expect that the large sets of data and health information collected using wearable sensors from individuals’ daily activities will ultimately generate predictive algorithms and revolutionize the traditional healthcare setting.