A new NC State-led National Science Foundation Nanosystems Engineering Research Center could transform the way we think about health care.

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What makes a 10-year-old asthmatic girl cough?

It could be an allergy to the family dog. Or high pollen counts. Or smoke from the old factory she passes on the way to school.

For worried parents, solving this health puzzle would be much easier if there were a reliable way to monitor what's happening in their daughter's body in real time. They could track when symptoms appear and when they go away. Eventually, they could steer her away from environments that make her sick.

Researchers at the new National Science Foundation (NSF) Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) are working on ways to make this happen. The center, headquartered at NC State with additional faculty and facilities at three partner institutions, is using the tiniest of materials to develop self-powered health monitoring sensors and devices.

These devices could be worn on the chest like a patch, on the wrist like a watch, as a cap that fits over a tooth, or in other ways, depending on the biological system that's being monitored. Wireless health monitoring is already a fast-growing industry, but the self-powered technology being developed by ASSIST means that changing and recharging batteries on these devices could be a thing of the past.

“Currently there are many devices out there that monitor health in different ways,” said Dr. Veena Misra, the center's director and professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State. “What's unique about our technologies is the fact that they are powered by the human body, so they don't require battery charging.”

These devices could transform health care by improving the way doctors, patients and researchers gather and interpret important health data. Armed with uninterrupted streams of heart rate readings, oxygen levels, carbon monoxide concentrations, and other data, sick people could better manage chronic diseases, and healthy people could make even better decisions to keep themselves fit.

On a larger scale, data gleaned from research studies employing these devices could prove invaluable to lawmakers crafting environmental policy. And if people using the devices make better decisions about where and how healthfully they live, national health care costs, which topped $2.5 trillion in 2010, could come down.

The ASSIST Center, one of three recently announced Nanosystems Engineering Research Centers, will be supported by an initial five-year, $18.5 million NSF grant that will fund the center's research, education and outreach programs. Additional support will come from industry partners that will bring the center's research to the marketplace. About 30 companies and agencies have already signed up.

The new center is headquartered on NC State's Centennial Campus in the Larry K. Monteith Engineering Research Center. Just down the road is the NSF FREEDM Systems Center, another Engineering Research Center led by the university. With the addition of ASSIST, NC State holds the distinction of being the only university in the country currently leading two active NSF Engineering Research Centers, among the largest and most prestigious grants made by the engineering directorate of the federal agency.

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