A body monitor originally designed in Pittsburgh to aid with down-to-earth weight loss has been repurposed on the International Space Station to track changes in weightlessness far above the planet.
From the highest altitudes on Earth to the immeasurable void of space, Downtown-based Body Media has seen its equipment find new life through alternative uses in unusual places over the past decade.
Founded in 1999, Body Media rolled out its first set of SenseWear armbands in 2002, supported in part with $6 million in venture capital funding. Today, the company has risen to become an internationally recognized leader in body monitoring technology, with its suite of sensor-laden armbands being the only ones in their class to be registered with the FDA as a Class II medical device. A company spokesperson said there are now between 50 and 100 employees in the company.
This spring, Body Media announced it had completed a $12 million funding round meant to help it move into mobile health markets as well as create new products. The majority investor was Comcast Ventures, but funding also came from Draper Fisher Jurvetson ePlanet, Draper Triangle Ventures, Ascension Health Ventures and InCube Ventures.
Soon after the SenseWear's release, the armband line was tested in an extreme environment. In 2002, Bret Goodpaster, associate professor of medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical School's division of endocrinology and metabolism, took the armband on an expedition to the South Pole. While that research was primarily focused on physical activity and the number of calories that participants burned during the expedition, Dr. Goodpaster said he saw how the equipment could have broader applications, particularly for the military.
"If military personnel are out in remote areas, wouldn't it be important to know how much energy is expended during a day so that you can know how much food they need?" he asked.
The newest version of the SenseWear Armband -- equipped with heat flux sensors that measure calories burned, sensors that track changes in skin's response to stimuli, accelerometers that track movement, heart monitors and settings to track quality of sleep -- was sent up to the International Space Station at the end of last year.
Over the next three years, scientists will measure changes that occur as astronauts wear the monitors for 10- to 14-day periods.
Johnny Farringdon, Body Media director of informatics, said the company worked with NASA officials four years ago to design an armband with the materials and durability that would work in outer space, since the company's traditional nylon-based armbands would release gases that would go unnoticed on Earth but could cause problems on the compact space station.
He said NASA originally reached out during a time when officials were considering manned trips to Mars, but now plans to use the data to track the effects of a long-term stint in space. The Lakewood, Colo.-based Mars Society, not quite ready to dismiss the idea of an astronaut going to Mars, also used monitors during a simulated Mars mission in Utah this year.
"People go to these inhospitable places using our device because they want to know what happens to that person's body in the environment, how many calories are burned during certain activities," said Mr. Farringdon. "If you're planning a trip to Mars, you need to know how much food to take with you."
Whether it's a trip to the red planet or to the Earth's greatest peaks, changes in altitude, atmospheric pressure and even temperature can affect how the body metabolizes calories and, as a result, how other systems of the body function. And while environmental changes in metabolism generally last as long as a person is in an unusual place, many changes can mimic symptoms of widespread health problems.
One example is found in a study conducted this year by Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic using Body Media monitors on Mount Everest.
Participants spent six weeks at a 17,500-foot elevation base camp on Mount Everest before climbing to the 29,029-foot peak over a four-week period. Researchers following participants in traveling laboratories served as a control group.
The idea behind the study was to provide insight into conditions such as heart failure, lung disease and sleep apnea, all of which are associated with low-levels of oxygen similar to what people experience in high altitudes.
Bruce Johnson, Mayo professor of physiology and medicine, said in a press release that data uncovered in the study could possibly be applied toward medicine in the future, but will definitely help better understand those who regularly work in low-oxygen, high-altitude areas.
"Altitude research has practical applications for various diseases as well as for treating altitude sickness and helping people adjust to high elevations, whether you're talking about troops in Afghanistan, workers in the South Pole or observatories that are thousands of feet above sea level," he said.
Body Media CEO Christine Robins said in a press release that the new uses weren't exactly what designers had in mind when the monitors were created, but she looks forward to seeing even more innovative uses in the future.
"Our body-sensing technology has been used for research for many years in areas ranging from obesity to COPD, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, cancer, bariatrics, sleep and intensive care, but this is the first use of our monitors for altitude research," she said. "The fact that Mayo Clinic selected our armbands for this project again demonstrates that our data, which is clinically validated for measuring physical activity, is as valuable for these kinds of rigorous studies as it is for weight management and other consumer applications."
And while Body Media hasn't forgotten its target audience of fitness buffs -- 95 percent of clients purchase the equipment to lose weight -- officials are prepared for even more unusual requests for monitors in the future, said Mr. Farringdon.
He noted that as early as 2005, when then 16-year-old Dame Ellen MacArthur set the world record for the youngest solo sailing trip around the world, Body Media monitors used to track the teen's sleep were also attached to the mast of the ship to monitor its movements. He imagines this type of flexibility of use will become the norm.
"People are going to do more unusual things and live in different places and companies have to account for that," he said.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. First Published September 18, 2012 4:00 AM