Contest: Design a Better Biosensor for Alcohol

It might be a hoodie or a watch or a baseball cap, but the alcohol monitor of the future will not only be wearable, but hardly noticeable. Those are the specs for entrants in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) contest that will award $200,000 for the best-designed alcohol biosensor. The second place design wins $100,000.

The federal agency’s contest aims to remove the stigma of alcohol sensors by creating an “inconspicuous” gadget that measures a person’s blood alcohol level in real time. The device would hopefully improve on the bulky alcohol sensors currently used by the criminal justice system and others interested in monitoring blood alcohol levels.

Those gadgets are roughly the size of an old-style phone pager or pagers used by restaurants and are commonly worn around the ankle. In use since 2003, current alcohol sensors are only able to take readings once every 30 minutes.

Alcohol-Sensor Jewelry?

The contest, called the “Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge,” is conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which is part of the NIH. The goal is to improve the amount and accuracy of data on alcohol use to “researchers, clinicians, therapists” and those wearing the devices.

Ideally the gadget would “take the form of jewelry, clothing, or another format located in contact with the body,” says the NIH, and would operate like a Fitbit-style fitness tracker by being able to interpret and store the alcohol readings or send them to smartphones. It should also allow users to avoid frequent blood tests or the necessity to self-report their alcohol use.

“This project is designed to stimulate investment from public and private sectors in the development of improved alcohol biosensors that will be appealing to researchers, treatment providers and individuals,” says George F. Koob, PhD, director of the NIAAA, in an NIH news release.

Biosensor to Benefit Other Conditions

Beyond the criminal justice system, these biosensors might be applicable for use in treating a number of other conditions in which effectiveness in combating them can rest “on the ability to accurately measure alcohol use,” says the NIH. Among the health conditions cited were liver disease and HIV/AIDS. And the NIH says that the ease and lack of obtrusiveness of such a device would also likely encourage its use by “those concerned with their personal drinking, or in the counsel of a therapist.”

Although they’re functionally reliable, currently available biosensor models are bulky or visible enough that they often deter people from voluntarily wearing them even if medically critical to their health. For use in addiction treatment, not everyone in recovery will find such a device useful, but the hope is that some people might be motivated with the help of an electronic nudge.

“I would like to hear more about the final product before I would make up my mind,” says David Clark, author of the book entitled Out There: A Story of Ultra Recovery, which details how 100-mile marathons helped him stay clean from alcohol, drug and food addictions. Clark coaches and teaches many recovering addicts at his gym in Lafayette, Colorado, and through his non-profit The Superman Project.

“I’m not sure if a device like this would’ve mattered,” Clark says. “I believe the alcohol isn’t the problem. The problem exists internally and the addiction or abuse is merely a symptom.”

The new alcohol biosensor would be expected to be rechargeable, removable and able to alert users if it loses function. The deadline for submissions is Dec. 1, 2015, when contestants would be expected to provide a working prototype along with data that proves it’s functional and reliable.

The first-place winner would be awarded $200,000 and second place would pay $100,000. The prize money is only available to be awarded to U.S. citizens and residents or U.S. businesses, although those who aren’t citizens or permanent residents can participate as part of otherwise eligible teams, but not share in the prize money.

Judging of contest submissions is expected to start in January 2016, with the winners to be announced sometime after mid-February of next year.

By Nancy Wride

Follow Nancy on Twitter at @NWride

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