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How to easily measure your health

Easily detecting chemical substances that indicate whether or not someone is ill, or measuring how healthy the environment is, and directly linking that result to that person. In a nutshell, this is what researchers within the Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA) want to achieve in the ‘Measuring and Detecting Healthy Behaviour’ route.

Dutch physicist Marco Beijersbergen and analytical chemist Hubertus Irth are the coordinators) of Measuring and Detecting: Anything, Anytime, Anyplace. This research is one of the 24 routes included in the NWA. In this route, researchers from fourteen different partners are working together (see box) on new measuring instruments, interpreting measurement data, and communicating the measurement results. With funding from the NWA Startimpuls, some of the partners will work on the first part: the Measuring and Detecting Healthy Behaviour project. Their ideas for this project revolve around the theme of health and they aim to develop measurements that can be used anywhere and anytime.

Interaction with the patient

Irth explains that a number of different steps are involved in developing these measuring instruments. ‘First, we look for new molecules or other signs of a disease. This can be a chemical substance that tells us how severe a disease is, or a signal that someone is developing a disease. The next step is to develop methods to measure this outside the laboratory. Irth: ‘To do that, we either have to combine multiple complex detection methods or make them into one practical device.’ The patient then has to start working with the instrument and the data generated. The next challenge for the research team is how to present this data in a clear manner, for example in an app, and to investigate how the patient reacts to that data. Irth illustrates: ‘If we measure the blood sugar level of a diabetic patient, a simple number does not mean that much. We are therefore looking for ways to show clearly whether that number is within the normal blood sugar range, and what the patient does with this information.’ Additionally, it is important to enhance data protection: you do not want information falling into the wrong hands.

Measuring and predicting air quality

Naturally, health is related to a healthy living environment. Beijersbergen: ‘In our project, we want to know what we are being exposed to, so we will also look at air quality. How does the body react to this exposure?’ To find out, the researchers want to develop sensors to use in the field. The sensors measure the gas concentration or air pollution. ‘These sensors could be small chips that measure a certain molecule, or a smaller variant of a mass spectrometer.’ On top of that, they are looking into the practical aspects of all this measuring work using already existing sensors. Beijersbergen: ‘There are mobile sets to mount to a bicycle, measuring poles to measure the air quality in many places and satellite observations of the air quality. We want to link all that information to the weather forecast, which we could then use to give more specific advice to asthma patients, such as that, if they want to be active outdoors in this area, they had better go in the morning rather than the afternoon.’

Broad application

The project focuses on all aspects of measurement: basic chemistry, such as identifying the right molecules; developing small and fast measuring devices; the ethical aspect of sharing data; and the psychological aspect of presenting and interacting with that data. ‘Covering the entire chain is what makes this route so special,’ says Beijersbergen, ‘because that chain can be deployed in many different areas, such as health and food safety, and the industrial processes of a cleaner living space.’ This is exactly the goal of the overarching NWA Measuring and detecting: Anything, Anytime, Anyplace route, which is included in the Startimpuls project. Irth: ‘Once a practical measuring method has been developed for a specific situation, it can often be used in many other areas. The same holds for newly detected chemical substances, or methods to handle and present data. The knowledge gained from this route can be applied to a variety of fields, ranging from research to industry, and from basic to applied.

The Startimpuls Measuring and Detecting Healthy Behaviour project  is part of the NWA  Measuring and Detecting: Anything, Anytime, Anyplace route. Fourteen research partners from the following institutions are collaborating in this project: Maastricht University, Radboud University, Utrecht University, Leiden University, Wageningen University & Research Center, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, University Medical Center Utrecht (UMC), Academic Medical Centre Amsterdam (AMC), Eindhoven University of Technology, University of Twente Delft University of Technology, Leiden University of Applied Sciences, The Hague University of Applied Sciences, and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (Dutch: TNO).

On 28 March 2018 a workshop on the Startimpuls project will take place, at which the plans and progress will be discussed, along with the research on possible collaboration with other NWA routes. For more information, please visit the website: metendetecteren.nl.