Center for Wearable Sensors Set to Open

Non-invasive sensors will monitor the patient’s cholesterol, blood glucose and heart rate in real-time.

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The UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering is creating a new Center for Wearable Sensors, officially scheduled to launch in June or July 2014. Jacobs School of Engineering Dean Albert Pisano and nanoengineering professor Joseph Wang are leading efforts to create the center. The goal of the center is to increase collaboration between researchers and faculty while supporting the local economy through the development of wearable sensors that monitor medical conditions in real-time.

“We want to recognize the talent of our engineering faculty and support the education and technology development in California and globally because of our unique combination of experts from across multiple disciplines,” Wang said.

The center consists of roughly 15 to 20 faculty members from multiple disciplines such as nanoengineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science. Wearable sensors can include sensors on clothes, temporary tattoos, patches or even implants. One of the goals is to make these wearable sensors and electronics as low-powered and energy-efficient as possible. Professor Patrick Mercier, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, leads one of the research focuses.

“We want to make sensors so low-powered that they don’t need to be recharged,” Mercier said. “We have been looking into various ways to harvest energy, whether it’s through body heat, motion, sweat or radio waves.”

According to Mercier, the research hopes to build technology that betters people’s lives and will accelerate the development of sensors so that multiple sensors can be combined and streamlined.

“Here’s a car analogy: 20 years ago, cars didn’t have sensors, and you wouldn’t know that it was broken until smoke came out. Now, vehicles have over 100 different sensors, of which many alert for major issues before they actually happen,” Mercier said. “That’s the same concept as wearable sensors.”

The sensors would be worn at all times and constantly read out values of blood glucose, cholesterol, or heart rate. These vital signs would then be recorded and sent to doctors in their offices, allowing for quick diagnoses.

“All this data brings about the major issue of privacy,” Wang said. “We must address the fact that the data must be protected as needed.”

Most public concern is rooted in the rapidly advancing technology and ease at which personal information can be accessed online. According to Mercier, it is definitely something that the people designing the sensors are concerned about and will take into account.

Dr. Larry Smarr, the founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, shares some of these concerns. 

“Fundamentally, you have to start with the realization that there is a very large societal good that is served by sharing your data,” Smarr said. “Because to understand your values of heart rate, staphs, anything, you need to understand what the variation [of it] is in the human population. Getting population-wide sharing of data is essential for interpretation for the individual.”

Smarr feels that sharing the data is necessary and essential, but that protective measures must be taken in terms of laws and regulations. Laws that protect the individual must be created and maintained to create a safe place for the mass sharing of data.

“It’s [sharing data] like anything in life; things are always a tradeoff,” Smarr said. “You get some value, but you must take some risks.”