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Cincinnati is at the forefront of studying chemicals in sweat and what it could mean for your health

Posted at 10:18 AM, Sep 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-25 04:15:21-04

CINCINNATI -- Dr. Jason Heikenfeld could be described as a sweat investigator.

The University of Cincinnati professor uses sensors to measure sweat, which can help monitor a variety of health components, from drugs in someone’s system to when a woman might be ovulating. 

Heikenfeld helped develop technology that measures chemicals in sweat from people’s abdomens, backs and forearms. The sensors measure different properties of sweat, because sweat picks up some of the smaller properties in the person’s bloodstream. 

“Sweat is a really rich biofluid,” Heikenfeld said. “It has biomarkers that tell you all about human physiology.” 

The device looks like a fitness band someone would wear on their arm, but it's no Fitbit; it's a gateway to sweat intelligence, and Cincinnati is on the leading edge globally. 

Heikenfeld said he first became introduced to studying sweat when researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base wanted to monitor the performance of pilots. 

“We have 2,000 sensors on a plane, and only one on a pilot … the pilot is the performance bottleneck,” Heikenfeld said. “How can we monitor the pilot as well as we monitor the plane?” 

Scientists need to build sensors to sample the chemicals in sweat, and researchers must understand how to read the chemicals in order to measure its health applications, Heikenfeld said. 

The sensor was developed by Eccrine Systems, Inc., a Norwood-based company created from Heikenfeld’s research. 

CEO Gavi Begtrup said the sensor can tell a person whether they’re dehydrated, which could be useful for athletes or people who work in hot, physically demanding environments. 

Sweat loss is the major cause of dehydration in hot environments, Begtrup said. 

“There's a lot of studies that link dehydration to cognitive impairment,” Begtrup said. “People start making bad decisions when they're dehydrated.”  

The sensor can also detect infections before a person even shows signs of being sick, Begtrup said. Non-invasive sweat collection also measures cortisol, which would allow people to monitor their stress levels.

"If you can do those in the context of your daily life ... without having to go somewhere and poke someone ... that's big," Begtrup said. 

The sensor could also tell a woman when she’s most fertile. 

“Estrogen, testosterone, a lot of these small molecule hormones end up having concentrations in sweat that perfectly match blood concentration,” Heikenfeld said. 

The sensor will be on the market in the coming months, but it's not a consumer product, Begtrup said. The device is geared mostly toward industrial workforce safety, professional athletic training and military training.

“Someday, I hope people will refer to Cincinnati as Sweat Valley because this is where it all will have started,” Begtrup said.