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Environmental Factor, July 2012

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NIEHS and partners issue challenge to innovators

By Cindy Loose

My Air My Health logo
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

For Birnbaum, developing personalized monitors that link environmental exposures and individual physiological responses is key to personalized medicine and better understanding differential host response. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Imagine if people could know, in real time, what pollutants they were being exposed to and what those pollutants were doing to their bodies.

A competition to build a mobile device that would do just that was announced June 6.

The challenge, issued to tech savvy innovators, is to create a personal sensor system, small enough to be worn or carried, that measures both air pollution and the physiological responses of the individual carrying it. Those who accept the challenge, which includes $160,000 in prize money, are also required to have a plan for making the resulting data available, without revealing individual identities, to researchers, public health institutions, and other interested parties.

The My Air, My Health Challenge, part of the program, was announced during a health technology forum by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and Glenn Paulson, Ph.D., science advisor at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The program introduces a new vehicle for pursuing innovation, whereby agencies pay for results rather than funding research.

"Grants fund the proposals that are most likely to succeed, but challenges give the prize to someone who has already achieved success," said Birnbaum. “These challenges lead to attracting outside investment to an area that's been a federal priority.”

While a successful sensor will be valuable to individuals and specific communities concerned about pollutants, the collective data will be important to scientists who study the relationships between pollutants and diseases. While links to many diseases are already known, scientists face huge barriers in determining what pollutants an individual or group has been exposed to, when, and at what levels.

“If we can detect what a person is exposed to in their environment and then measure how their body responds, we can begin to understand how to prevent certain diseases,” Birnbaum said.

The device being sought would improve on existing fixed sensors, such as those that monitor emissions in a factory, by being portable and adding a feature that measures physiological responses.

Measuring the body’s response to pollutants

While the possibilities for measuring physiological responses to pollutants are infinite, the initial device will most likely measure cardiac and respiratory responses, said NIEHS Senior Advisor Allen Dearry, Ph.D., who manages the My Air, My Health Challenge. The health measurements may include things such as blood pressure, heart rate, some measure of lung capacity, and galvanic skin response, a measure of the electrical conductivity of skin, which can change in response to stress.

Devices entered in the competition must be able to measure airborne pollutants, including chemicals and/or particulates.

Engineers, people familiar with fixed sensors, and mobile software experts are among those expected to compete as individuals or teams, but the competition is open to anyone in the U.S. The deadline for entries is October 5.

As many as four finalists will receive $15,000 each in phase one of the competition. The winner of phase two, which requires a small-scale, proof-of-concept project, will be awarded $100,000.

In addition to health and environmental research groups, the device will be useful to community groups concerned about localized pollution and even individuals, said NIEHS program administrator David Balshaw, Ph.D., who is in charge of technical input for the challenge. “This is like ‘Field of Dreams,’” he added. “We believe if we make it, they will come.”

The My Air, My Health Challenge is sponsored by NIEHS, the EPA, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. The announcement was made at a forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Health Data Initiative a public-private collaboration that encourages innovators to develop and use health data applications to improve medical outcomes.

This is the first challenge issued by NIEHS, and the first joint challenge in which the National Institutes of Health has partnered with other agencies. Further details about the competition can be found on the NIEHS Challenges Web page.

(Cindy Loose is a contract writer with the NIEHS office in Bethesda, Md.)

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