We tend to blame bad genes for breast cancer and Alzheimer’s, but few diseases are purely genetic. The “exposome”–all the things we’re exposed to throughout our lives–often plays a bigger role than DNA. That includes the obvious, like diet and exercise, but also factors that are harder to track, like the chemicals that surround us.
A new wearable called MyExposome is designed to reveal which chemicals are actually part of your everyday life. Strap on the wristband for a week, and it absorbs chemicals–from pesticides to flame retardants–along with you. At the end of the week, you mail it back to a lab to learn about the invisible part of your world.
It looks like a typical plastic Livestrong wristband, but uses a special material designed to suck up chemicals. “It’s porous, like a sponge,” says Marc Epstein, CEO of MyExposome. “There’s lots of space for it to absorb things from the environment. It soaks up what’s around it, whether you’re swimming, showering, or walking down the street.”
It can’t track every single chemical–something you eat, for example, won’t show up unless it happens to be excreted through your pores. “I didn’t spill coffee on myself, but I can tell you that my bracelet measured very, very high for caffeine,” says Epstein. “That’s one of the chemicals you actually can sweat out in your pores.”
The lab analyzes each wristband for more than 1,400 different chemicals, from pesticides to endocrine disrupters, volatile organic compounds, and combustion byproducts. The focus was on chemicals that research suggests may pose a concern, or that the people they surveyed most wanted to know about.
After learning what’s around you, you may decide to make some changes. “I found it useful to find out what I was being exposed to,” Epstein says. “In my environment, there were flame retardants and pesticides, and I learned that I’m not sufficiently careful when I put flea medicine on my dog. I think you can’t change what you don’t know.”
The company plans to also look for broader patterns in the data, such as which chemicals are most common in certain neighborhoods or across the country. “Right now, we don’t know how exposures differ in San Francisco versus New York, inner cities or suburbs, schools, or factories,” he says. “We don’t have a pattern of what’s normal, whether it’s safe or not.”
In a small pilot screening of 28 people, the startup found only 57 chemicals (out of more than 84,000 manufactured in the U.S.). Almost everyone was exposed to at least one flame retardant and one pesticide. If the pattern holds across a bigger population and only a relatively small number of chemicals get wide exposure, that data could be used to know which chemicals to test most heavily–and which to potentially replace, if they pose safety issues.
“We think that to some degree the hook for people is to gather their individual data,” Epstein says. “But we think the long-term societal value is going to be even more impactful.”
The biggest challenge for the startup is cost–processing each wristband in the lab isn’t cheap. They launched a Kickstarter campaign to gather a first group of users, since they need a certain volume of wristbands to run the tests.
“Right now, we really need to have 20 to 30 wristbands at a time to make any kind of vaguely kind of cost effective processing,” Epstein says. “Our objective is to drive cost down both by increasing volume and doing automation.”
Most of the time is taken up as researchers handle the wristbands to keep them sterile–and those steps could eventually be done by robots. “There are a lot of manual steps, and a huge percentage of that could be automated in some kind of a Netflix-like way,” he says. “In the original Netflix business model where they had envelopes and DVDs came back, a lot was originally manual, but became automated over time.”
Now, they’re hoping to find organizations to buy the wristbands at a large volume–maybe, for example, a union for firefighters. “Who knows what they’re exposed to when they go rushing in,” Epstein says. “If we can get the funding to use them there, they can produce information that isn’t available any other way. And we can get the volumes to allow automation.”