The ingenious ONUSblue alcohol and drug detection patch

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The ONUSblue in full bloom on a user's arm indicates they have just crossed a certain blood-alcohol threshold(Credit: Derma-Tec)

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We've all heard of the benefits of the nicotine transdermal patch that non-invasively releases nicotine into the human body through the skin, doubling the success rate for giving up smoking. Now the patch approach is being employed by a new product that detects drugs (rather than administering them) through the skin. Indeed, Dr. Frank Etscorn, the first patent holder of the nicotine patch, is a company advisor and mentor for the trailblazing new company's founder, Anh-Dung Le.

Produced by Anh's new company Derma-Tec, the ONUSblue is the company's first product and also the first alcohol patch that uses a visual color-gradation to indicate the blood alcohol levels of the drug (in this case alcohol) and it is currently the subject of an Indiegogo fund-raising campaign. It is a disposable patch that turns darker shades of blue the more alcohol is consumed by the wearer, detecting blood alcohol levels by the residual substances excreted by the body in human sweat.

We spoke with Anh-Dung Le this week for a full rundown on the new company, it's first product and the roadmap for the future.

New Atlas: You've been involved in creating several inventions so far. What precipitated this endeavor?

Anh-Dung Le: About a year ago I started working with an old school buddy of mine and we have always had this fascination with sensors and we began looking at the big problems in society and trying to find a way that we could alleviate those big problems by creating new sensors.

The information contained in this chart came from a research document produced by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’ entitled "Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis" and was covered in this 2010 New Atlas story. The findings of the committee, based on wide ranging criteria, apply scientific methodology to answering the perpetually vexing question of exactly how much harm certain drugs do to their users and those around them. The full paper is available free on the web.

Anh-Dung Le: We looked at the problems faced by the community that we might be able to solve, and the biggest one we could see was alcohol. It's a really obvious problem in our local community, and it's also a global problem and although it's getting more attention and some progress is being made, there are a lot of people obviously still struggling with it, binge drinking, driving under the influence, and so on. People are getting killed and maimed and we finally settled our aim on creating a low-cost, continuously-monitoring, alcohol-detection, disposable skin-patch sensor. You use it once, then throw it away.

New Atlas: Is the long-term aim to detect more drugs than just alcohol?

Anh-Dung Le: As we've developed it, we realized that we were really only going after the low hanging fruit. If we can solve this problem today, we're well on the way to being able to detect other chemicals that are released by the body in sweat, and that goes beyond just detecting alcohol.

New Atlas: Like say, marijuana?

Anh-Dung Le: Exactly! Like marijuana and a host of other illegal substances. Alcohol is logically the biggest market but we can see a future roadmap that offers a range of capabilities for different user needs. We can detect cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and most of the logical illegal recreational drugs can be detected this way, though not all of them.

New Atlas: Which drugs are the hardest to detect?

Anh-Dung Le: The hardest to detect are those drugs which require only small quantities to get you high. LSD is invisible by this method and requires a blood analysis to reach certainty. There are others, but most of the prevalent drugs can be detected accurately with this technology.

New Atlas: Now you have the inventor of the nicotine patch involved?

Anh-Dung Le: Yes, Dr. Frank Etscorn was the first patent holder of the nicotine patch and he lives in New Mexico. I first met him a few months ago and the second time I met him, I said, "we could really use your advice" and so he's become a business advisor and he's playing a mentor role for me.

The nicotine patch is quite different to what we're doing. He solved the issue of delivering drugs into the circulation system via the skin, while we're solving the problem of detecting drugs non-invasively from the skin. What he really brings is vast experience in this industry, managing our financials, dealing with VCs and investors ... his involvement is invaluable.

New Atlas: So does the ONUSBlue actually indicate the level of blood alcohol content progressively or just when a threshold is reached?

Anh-Dung Le: Yes, we can indicate the exact level of blood alcohol content based on what we are designing, but our first product does not promise that. What our first product promises is if you have had alcohol to a certain level of blood content, it will tell you when that threshold is reached. That go-no-go market is a valuable market and that's our initial target.

The first product will be able to tell if you have achieved .04 percent blood alcohol content, which is half the legal limit here in the United States. We can also produce patches that detect other blood alcohol levels for different uses, such as say China, where the limit is .02 percent, or other countries where the legal limit might be .05 percent or .08 or ... whatever is needed. The way we do that is we have a different calibration system so we can meet the standards of the local jurisdiction.

That's our first market right now and that's our first phase. Then our second phase will be to produce patches that will give you a visual reading of how much alcohol is in your body, that is, what your blood alcohol level is.

New Atlas: Surely you know if you've had a few drinks because you've poured them down your own throat. How is this initial product going to help?

Anh-Dung Le: Well the patch can be used by different people in different ways and you've just got to look at the key stakeholders in the safe consumption of alcohol to envisage some of the ways it can be used – bar owners, party goers, parents giving their children the car keys, friends validating the safety of being in a car with a designated driver ... when you think about it, this simple patch can save a lot of lives by taking blind trust out of the equation.

Let's say you go to an event of some sort, where they put a wristband on you or stamp your hand to say you've paid. We'd like to replace those wristbands with our patch, so that you're not putting it on yourself, but it's being put on you by other people for other reasons.

Responsible serving of alcohol legislation requires that they do not serve you with another drink if they see that you're already drunk and that's not easy to establish for the bartender just by looking at someone, but our patch can determine that quite accurately and can be seen at a glance. If your patch is glowing at a pre-determined level, then it helps the bartender to establish whether or not they can serve you or say, "hey, maybe sit this one out and come back when the band isn't glowing." We see many possibilities here. It can quickly establish whether you've had two or three drinks prior to going to a bar, and we can see it saving lives because your friends can see the patch and validate whether you're going to still be the designated driver.

There are many different ways in which this technology can be used to moderate the risks of alcohol consumption for everyone.

New Atlas: So can you explain the pricing structure?

Anh-Dung Le: We're still working on that. It's a new marketplace and it depends on the channels we use to get it to market and their requirements and we're a bit too early to be able to make a definitive call on the long term pricing just yet. Where we finally manufacture it in bulk will also make a difference. We expect it will be between US$2 and $3 retail per patch, but it will be cheaper in bulk, and might be different if the patch needs to have other branding or customization imprinted on it for say a music festival.

The retail channels we use will be the major determining factor and once we have finalized our Indigogo campaign, and we have stocks, we expect to green light a number of different channels, such as supermarkets and drug stores, and they all have different ideas on whether we sell one patch at a time, or packs of 10, 20 or 50 to a box.

New Atlas: Can you foresee a time when one patch will indicate the presence of not just alcohol, but a range of recreational drugs?

Anh-Dung Le: Absolutely, that's further down the roadmap, but we expect that at some point we'll be selling a patch that detects not just alcohol, but the drugs we've already talked about and maybe more. The science behind it makes this totally feasible, but obviously a general purpose patch would cost more and we'll get the commercialization underway with the most valuable markets first. If someone came along with a specific need and wanted a million of those general purpose patches, we'd welcome the conversation though.

The start of something big?

ONUSblue's first product is being funded by the Indigogo campaign, and they've set themselves a difficult task raising $50,000 at $2 a time. To me, after 15 years of writing about new products and concepts, it appears to be the start of something BIG, because the Derma-tec patch promises to mitigate and manage many of the problems that flow from the world's massive alcohol consumption, the addiction of the masses dulling the pain of life's realities and the addiction of governments to sin taxes based on alcohol consumption.

It can be used by many different people and organizations to save lives and for the final word on the subject, check out this article I wrote a decade ago when I used one of the first affordable commercially available breathalyzers to harass a score of friends and acquaintances over a 12 month period. Understanding how much alcohol you've drunk can be problematic if you don't bring science into play.

Please give some consideration to purchasing a three-pack because this is an invention that has the potential to save a lot of lives and make the world a safer place.

1.25 million people a year perish on public roads, and alcohol is the main contributing factor, and that's before the brawling, domestic violence and other carnage resultant from mixing alcohol and testosterone.

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