Many alcohol studies rely on participants to self-report how much and how often they drink, which can, at times, result in unreliable data. Biomarkers (biological markers) based on indicators in blood or other bodily fluids can be objective measures of alcohol use. Some biomarkers directly measure whether an individual has recently been drinking by measuring components of alcohol in blood or urine after it is metabolized. Other biomarkers work by detecting the toxic effects that alcohol misuse may be having over time on organ systems or body chemistry, indirectly signaling an alcohol problem. Biomarkers have a variety of uses, including screening for possible alcohol problems in people who are unwilling or unable to provide accurate self-reports of their drinking, and objectively showing that someone with alcohol use disorder has abstained from drinking.
 
However, there are limitations to using currently recognized biomarkers. Some biomarkers are less accurate in certain groups, such as women and younger individuals, and it is often difficult to interpret the type of drinking (quantity/duration) measured by the biomarker. For these reasons, it is recommended that biomarkers be used in conjunction with self-report.
But what if researchers had access to a tool that could give perfectly accurate data about a person’s drinking?
 
To this end, NIAAA is once again challenging the biotech community to design a wearable device capable of measuring blood alcohol in near real-time. This time, however, developers are being tasked with creating a device that measures alcohol concentration in the blood or in the interstitial fluid that surrounds the body’s cells, as opposed to using technology that detects alcohol released through the skin in sweat or vapor. As in the first competition, the ideal biosensor would be capable of measuring alcohol levels noninvasively as a sleek and unobtrusive device. The creators of the winning prototype will be awarded $200,000 through Challenge.gov, which lists federal incentive prizes and competitions. The second place developers will receive $100,000.
 
“Our first Challenge was a huge success. The winning devices made important strides in improving transdermal alcohol sensing,” says NIAAA Director George F. Koob, Ph.D.
 
In May 2016, NIAAA announced that BACtrack had won the first Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge with its Skyn prototype. The wrist-worn device detects blood alcohol concentration (BAC) using a fuel-cell technology similar to that in devices used by law enforcement for roadside alcohol testing. MILO, Inc., won second prize for its design using disposable cartridges to continuously track BAC.
 
“We have learned that there is real interest in the private sector around wearable alcohol biosensors, and that innovation using distinct means of alcohol detection is on the horizon,” says M. Katherine Jung, Ph.D., Director of NIAAA’s Division of Metabolism and Health Effects, and co-leader of the competition.
 
Innovation is encouraged, and creative solutions could include, but are not limited to, the adaptation and miniaturization of technologies such as spectroscopy or wave technology.
“We want to continue to harness the power of the private sector, because if alcohol biosensors become a part of the ‘wearable toolbox,’ then tangible new opportunities will become available that can profoundly affect the field of alcohol research,” says Dr. Jung.
 
In addition to its potential for researchers, alcohol biosensors could also be a tool for consumers who wish to track their personal drinking patterns.
 
Competition submissions (a working prototype, data proving functionality/reliability, and photos/videos) will be accepted until May 15, 2017, with winners announced on or after August 1, 2017.