A new kind of wearable device could deliver real-time medical data to those with eye or mouth diseases, according to a Penn State Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics professor. The micro- and nano-device technology could revolutionize how health conditions are treated.

“We sought to create a device that collects both small and large substances of biofluids such as tears and saliva, which can be analyzed for certain conditions on a rapid, continuous basis, rather than waiting on test results from samples in a lab,” said Huanyu “Larry” Cheng, the Dorothy Quiggle Career Development Professor in the Penn State Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics.

The sensors would be placed near the tear duct or mouth to collect samples, which would then produce data viewable on a user’s smartphone or sent to their doctor, according to Cheng.

“But a device like this would have to be discreet, soft, and comfortable for a patient to agree to wear it,” he said. “And it would have to be a low-cost option for patients.”

The tears- and saliva-sensing technology can help manage diseases such as oral ulcers, oral cancer, eye wrinkles, and oral or eye infections including keratitis, which is inflammation of the clear tissue on the front of the eye.

Last year, Cheng published information on a similar wearable skin patch that collects sweat and tests for pH, sodium, and glucose levels, which is helpful for those with hypoglycemia or diabetes.

This new device not only collects data but also administers medicine with a microneedle through the skin around the eye, mouth, or tongue.

“Through nano- to micro-steel ports on the device, we can probe the cell to deliver molecular drugs for treatment in a very efficient process at the cellular level,” Cheng said. “Conversely, the ports can allow us to get access to the gene and coding information on the cell.”

The researchers are developing working prototypes and are in talks with local manufacturers as well as the National Institutes of Health and Amazon for manufacturing the device on a large scale.

“This is a mature technology with a lot of interest behind it,” Cheng said. “There are many possible uses for the device if it makes it to the commercial marketplace.”