Courtesy of Cornell University

Phenomenal | Prof. David Erickson, believes that there is a viable commercial market for nutrition monitoring.

November 26, 2018

A New PHeNoMena in Health

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What do stress, viral loading in HIV, nutritional awareness, and fever related disease diagnosis all have in common? They are all health-monitoring related challenges which the Public Health, Nanotechnology, and Mobility program are researching via the use of mobile phone applications and lab on a chip technology, which minituarizes processes that usually require a laboratory, to fit inside a small, portable device.

The four PHeNoM projects, Stress-phone, Hema-phone, Nutri-phone, and Fever-phone, are managed by Cornell researchers at both the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses in collaboration with researchers from UCLA.

The Stress-Phone project is the PHeNoM initiative which focuses on mental health monitoring.

“The idea behind Stress-Phone is finding a biochemical way to measure the general level of stress,” said Prof. David Erickson, mechanical and aerospace engineering, the principal investigator for the PHeNoM program.“Changes in salivary cortisol, day to day and week to week, give us a general sense of stress levels.”

Salivary cortisol is measured using a lab on a chip technology based in optofluidics, a field that Erickson helped co-found.

“The basic idea was optical devices could be made to work better at a very small scale using microfluidics, which is fluid mechanics at very small scales.”

According to Erickson, the use of waves to guide particles, allowing for small scale chemical analysis, makes mobile health testing a possibility. Lateral flow testing is also a component of lab on a chip technology. It is the same fluid wicking and testing mechanism used in pregnancy tests.

The Stress-Phone project uses voice signatures and analysis of user engagement with their smartphone to supplement cortisol testing, thus allowing for a more comprehensive assessment of stress. Prof. Tanzeem Choudhury, information science, said that having multiple ways to collect health information can be used to build a more robust signal for detecting stress.

Choudhury conducts her own research monitoring behavioral symptoms of mental health, such as speech patterns, sleep patterns, and user-phone interaction. One of her projects, Dopplesleep, is a bedside device that uses radar to measure changes in heart rate and motion, monitoring sleep, a major factor in mental health.

“We are going from research to clinical trials, collaborating with Stanford, in the context of mental health and depression,” Choudhury said.

One project from PHeNoM that has already moved beyond research into application is Nutri-phone. Erickson’s original interest in nutrition monitoring came from a meeting with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, when he became aware of nutritional deficiencies in the U.S. army. Erickson collaborated with Prof. Saurabh Mehta, nutritional sciences, to create the Nutri-phone project.

Nutri-phone research is focused on testing for micronutrient deficiencies, including vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin D, and iron. After research was conducted on developing tests for each of these micronutrients, a scanner was developed that tests for all of the above nutrients.

Erickson and Mehta have created a startup company, Vita-scan, which seeks to deploy Nutriphone technology to consumer use. According to the company’s website, a user’s blood sample can be placed on a test strip and inserted into a reader, which can then send the nutrition information to the user’s phone.

The PHeNoM program has been operating on a five year, 3 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation and started in 2014. According to Erickson, it will end in its current form in 2019.