Health, environmental tracker could head off asthma attacks without drugs

Researchers working on the HET--Courtesy of NC State University

Currently, asthma treatment involves avoiding irritants and taking medication to relieve symptoms. Researchers at North Carolina State University have created a wearable system that more concretely monitors potential environmental irritants and could predict and potentially prevent asthma attacks.

The Health and Environmental Tracker (HET) monitors the user's environment and physical attributes, the team said in a statement. It comprises a set of novel sensors incorporated into a wristband and a patch that is applied to the chest. It also includes a spirometer, which a user must breathe into several times a day to measure lung function.

The wristband monitors environmental factors that could trigger an asthma attack, such as humidity, temperature and volatile organic compounds in the air. Meanwhile, the patch tracks the user's movement, heart rate, respiratory rate and wheezing among other factors. The sensors wirelessly transmit the data to a computer. It has been tested in the lab and in a limited number of human subjects, the researchers said.

"Our goal was to design a wearable system that could track the wellness of the subjects and in particular provide the infrastructure to predict asthma attacks, so that the users could take steps to prevent them by changing their activities or environment," said Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC state and a principal investigator of the study, in a statement.

HET wristband--Courtesy of NC State University

Instead of reacting to an attack with inhaled corticosteroids or bronchodilators, lead author James Dieffenderfer said that "preventing an attack could be as simple as going indoors or taking a break from an exercise routine." A prophylactic such as the HET could reduce the side effects from taking corticosteroids for the more than 24 million people in the U.S. who have asthma. These effects include the mouth infection thrush and an increased risk for cataracts and osteoporosis from long-term use.

This summer, the team plans to start testing the system on asthma patients in a controlled environment. They will use the data to identify the environmental and physiological factors that are most effective at predicting an attack.

"Once we have that data, the center can begin developing software that will track user data automatically and give users advance warning of asthma attacks," Bozkurt said. "And that software will allow users to synch the HET to their smartphones so that they can monitor their health on the go."

- read the statement