Perspire to inquire: detecting disease from cortisol levels in sweat

BioTechniques News
Tristan Free

Researchers have developed a sensor that can detect cortisol, an indicator of many diseases, in sweat.

A team at the Oregon State University College of Engineering (OR, USA) has developed a new device that can be used to detect disease from cortisol levels in sweat. The device can also be engineered to detect other hormones, such as progesterone. Detecting cortisol levels in 8 minutes, this device offers a non-invasive, efficient method for detecting potential markers of adrenal disorders such as Addison’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome.

Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is a chemical messenger that helps the body fight infection, stabilize blood pressure and regulate metabolism. This hormone is beneficial for regulating stress in the short term; however, prolonged cortisol production has been linked to an increased risk of depression and heart disease.

“In a healthy individual, cortisol levels rise and fall depending on time throughout the day,” first author Sanjida Yeasmin explained. “They are usually higher in the morning and lower at night – that means if you’re going to effectively monitor cortisol, fast and frequent measurement is needed.”

The most common cortisol tests involve taking blood or urine samples, which require lab equipment and personnel as well as time for both taking the sample and waiting for the results. The current team’s enzyme mimic sensor bypasses these issues.

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Inspired by blood–glucose meters readily available at pharmacies for diabetes monitoring, the current team developed an enzyme-coated electrode that can generate an electrical signal when it comes into contact with cortisol. However, this proved challenging as natural enzymes for cortisol detection have a short lifespan and lack stability.

To resolve this issue, senior author Larry Cheng and first author Sanjida Yeasmin created an artificial, stable and highly sensitive enzyme mimic that was able to detect cortisol. The enzyme is made of a specialized polymer with spaces that fit cortisol molecules only. When cortisol comes into contact with the enzyme, an electrical signal can be detected; measuring these signals enables the user to determine the amount of cortisol excreted in the individual’s sweat.

“This sensor is natural enzyme free, label free and redox-signaling-probe free,” reported Yeasmin. “It is a robust and integrated sensor that can be applied for point-of-care applications – like at someone’s bedside, outside a lab setting – and even for wearable applications. Our new sensor is more sensitive and selective than most reported sensors and, therefore, more reliable for stress hormone monitoring.”

The next step is to develop a wearable version of the cortisol sensor for continuous health monitoring. As previously mentioned, the device also has the potential to detect alternative hormones implicated in other diseases and may one day offer an efficient, cost-effective diagnostic test for a range of diseases.

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