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ATLANTA - Someday, a small skin patch being developed by SpectRx may be used to identify truckers, airline pilots and other workers who hit the bottle before they hit the road or the runway.
The patch, or competing devices at labs elsewhere, also could be used with an ignition lock system to disable a car if a would-be driver has been drinking, said Dr. Karen Peterson of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The institute last week awarded a two-year contract to SpectRx, based in suburban Norcross, to produce a device to continuously monitor alcohol in the body. The contract, which could be stretched to five years, was one of five similar ones approved since September by the institute, a federal agency.
The implication of being able to easily spot people with alcohol in their bloodstream is enormous. Almost 18,000 people were killed last year in alcohol-related traffic accidents. They represented 42 percent of all highway deaths.
Last year, a few pilots were prevented from boarding passenger jets because of suspicions they had had too much to drink. In those cases, the pilots were stopped only because someone smelled alcohol on their breath or saw signs of trouble.
The flip side of safety, however, will be the potential invasion of privacy by such monitoring, acknowledged Peterson, the institute's project officer for advanced research.
And the monitor is still only a wish on the institute's to-do list.
Even so, the news has caught the attention of shareholders. SpectRx shares rose 41 cents to $3.45 Monday and are up 96 percent since the company announced its contract a week ago.
All five research teams are using existing technology, so they are not starting from scratch, Peterson noted.
The projects range from one that would use an implantable device to another in which a low-powered laser would be passed over one's fingers to get an alcohol reading, Peterson said from the institute's headquarters in Bethesda, Md.
SpectRx plans to adapt technology from a glucose monitor it developed but for which it does not have regulatory clearance yet. As with the glucose monitor, the alcohol monitor would use a laser to burn four holes about the size of a human hair in the dead, outer layer of skin. It's painless, according to the firm.
The patch, about the size of a quarter and three or four quarters thick, would go over the holes, sticking to the skin much like a bandage.
A miniature vacuum pump would pull interstitial fluid, which surrounds cells in the body, into the patch through the holes. Alcohol would react with a chemical in the patch. That would create an electrical current, and that reading would be transmitted to a nearby meter. Readings from the meter could be retransmitted to a more distant receiver.
The patch would have to be replaced regularly, because the holes heal over in about three days, according to SpectRx. The company said it can't estimate what the alcohol monitor system would cost, but it pegged replacement patches for the glucose device at about $5 each, and the rest of the system at "a few hundred dollars."
SpectRx will share its $1.5 million contract with the Boston University School of Public Health and Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.
Duke, Indiana and Brown universities and Science & Engineering Services, of Columbia, Md., also have contracts.
'`We've got the collection (of chemical samples) down pat,'' said SpectRx spokesman Bill Wells. ``The issue is going to be tying everything together. On the outset ... we're confident we can make it a success.''
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism decided to finance development of a continuous alcohol monitor because none exists, said Peterson.
The idea was born at the institute, but other agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, have a stake in the outcome, she said. ``I'm sure they will have an interest in these sensors.''
So may privacy advocates.
There are protection of privacy issues,'' she said.Those kinds of issues will have to be addressed before deciding how these things will be marketed.''
``Because this is a new system, I'd say ... you are in uncharted (legal) water,'' said Charles A. Shanor, a labor law specialist who teaches at Emory law school.
No federal laws prohibit private businesses from testing employees for drug and alcohol use, although some states restrict it, he said.
Labor contracts also may limit the right of employers to use alcohol monitors, he said.
Whether public employees can be tested for alcohol or drug use depends on the job they hold, the need for testing and how invasive the test is, he explained. Generally, they have greater privacy rights than employees in the private sector, Shanor said.
``It might be accepted legally (to test) a police officer but not a secretary in city hall.''
David McNaughton writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: email@example.com
Cox News Service