Patient-Powered Research

The health effects of air pollution are well documented. Smog has been linked to increased asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes, hospitalizations and premature death. But despite all the data produced through regional air monitoring by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are large gaps.

In recent years, the EPA has started encouraging average citizens to do their own monitoring using “small sensor” technology — hand-held devices that are affordable, easy to use and often sold as part of crowdsourced “air mapping” projects.

But there remain a lot of unknowns about the quality and full potential of such “next generation” sensors. The PRISMS project, led by College of Nursing Associate Professor Kathy Sward, will pair faculty from four colleges at the University of Utah — Nursing, the School of Medicine, Engineering and Mines and Earth Sciences — with Utah families whose kids have asthma. Using a $5.5 million grant awarded in September, 2015 from the National Institutes of Health, university scientists will collaborate with these families to develop a biomedical informatics platform that will make it possible to crowdsource and link air quality data with personal health monitoring — and, eventually, pinpoint the cause of a child’s discomfort.

Testing a Variety of Monitors

The grant, a component of the Pediatric Research using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems (or PRISMS) program from the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, will run for four years. Over that time, the team and a core group of families will test a growing variety of personal environmental monitors — some wearable, some home-based — and create Web-based interfaces that could form the foundation of future pediatric asthma research.

The Internet-based “infrastructure” the Utah teams create will enable kids, parents, doctors and researchers to feed real-time information into a comprehensive database.

A Comprehensive Database

The first year, researchers will focus on finding families willing to try out a series of sensors and begin developing computer systems to process and integrate the new streams of data. The second and third years will be spent refining the computer infrastructure — sensor connections and a website design — and developing other modes for inputting the data, including age-appropriate mobile apps. In the final year, the researchers plan to run a pilot research project with Utah families.

The eventual database will incorporate information from doctors’ records, hospital emergency room visits, wearable Fitbit-like sensors, and regional air quality monitors, like those installed on UTA TRAX trains. The idea is to measure as many clinically relevant environmental exposures as possible to store and standardize the data so that any scientist can investigate how each contributes on its own, and together with others, to pediatric asthma.

The Utah team will work in tandem with another group of researchers creating similar systems in another state. The NIH anticipates using the new networks as the basis for a national data coordinating center for pediatric asthma which could eventually be made available online to the public.

Read more about NIH PRISMS Program and the University of Utah PRISMS Informatics Center.