NIH challenge seeks wearable alcohol biosensor

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The National Institutes of Health has launched a challenge to the biotech community to design a wearable device capable of monitoring blood alcohol levels in real time.

Current technology is able to detect alcohol released through the skin in sweat or vapor. However, NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) is seeking a device from industry that would measure alcohol concentration in the blood or interstitial fluid that surrounds the body’s cells.

In addition, while current technology takes an alcohol reading every 30 minutes, NIH wants a solution that improves on this interval and most closely approximates real-time monitoring and data collection, says Kathy Jung, director of NIAAA’s Division of Metabolism and Health Effects, and co-leader of the challenge.

“Our primary need for this device is actually in research settings—and perhaps in clinical settings—for people who already have an underlying alcohol cause of disease,” says Jung, who notes that many alcohol studies rely on self-reporting to measure drinking, which can produce unreliable data.

At the same time, she adds that NIAAA believes there is also a potentially “huge consumer market” for such a wearable biosensor designed to track personal drinking patterns and to keep alcohol consumption at a healthy level.

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Although there are so-called “breathalyzer” apps available on the market that attach to smartphones, Jung contends that consumers must remember to actively use them. However, the device that NIH is looking for would be passive—not requiring users to take any action—and more inconspicuous.

“Highest priority will be given to devices that use non-invasive technologies to measure alcohol concentration in the blood and other bodily fluids or tissues, as opposed to detection of alcohol exuded through the skin in sweat or vapor,” states NIAAA’s website.

The “sleek, unobtrusive” wearable device “should be able to quantitate blood alcohol level, interpret the data, and store or transmit data to a smartphone or other device by wireless transmission” while closely approximating “real time-monitoring and data collection, eliminating as much of the biological and device-related delays as possible through innovative, validated and verifiable techniques,” according to NIAAA.

First prize in the competition is $200,000, and second prize is $100,000. Submissions, including a working prototype, data proving functionality/reliability, as well as photos/videos, will be accepted until May 15, 2017.

Winners will be announced on or after Aug. 1, 2017. Additional information about the challenge is available here.

This is the second time NIH has conducted such a competition. In May, NIAAA announced that San Francisco-based BACtrack won the first Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge with its Skyn prototype, a wrist-worn device detects blood alcohol concentration using fuel cell technology similar to that in devices used by law enforcement for roadside alcohol testing.

Jung observes that BACtrack’s “sampling frequency was very high” and that NIAAA was “impressed with the progress they made on that technology.” Nonetheless, she adds that the agency has since become aware of other technologies that also offer promise, and “we eagerly anticipate entries that use innovative approaches to measure blood alcohol content.”

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