Researchers swabbing earwax to detect stress levels

A new device that swabs earwax to detect a stress hormone may transform care for people battling depression and other stress-related conditions, researchers say.

The team from University College London, among other institutions in Germany and Chile, sampled the technique in 37 participants. Findings were published this week in the Heliyon journal.

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“Cortisol sampling is notoriously difficult, as levels of the hormone can fluctuate, so a sample might not be an accurate reflection of a person’s chronic cortisol levels,” Dr. Andres Herane-Vives, lead researcher and lecturer at the University College London, said in a news release. “Moreover, sampling methods themselves can induce stress and influence the results.”

However, Herane-Vives says cortisol levels (the primary stress hormone, per the Mayo Clinic) in earwax “appear to be more stable,” and the new device was said to make it easier for sampling and testing, as opposed to hair sampling, among other methods.

The lead researcher is organizing a company called Trears, in hopes to bring the new earwax sampling devices to the market. (Photo courtesy of University College London)

“Cortisol has been considered as a possible biomarker, or objective biological measure, for depression, but researchers have been stymied by challenges in accurately measuring cortisol levels,” per the news release.

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Hair samples were said to be a common technique but have some pitfalls: they are costly, time-consuming and can’t capture longer-term cortisol levels. The new earwax sampling device can be done at home, and it comes with a “brake” to stop the device from dangerously probing too far into the ear, per the release.

Researchers found that the earwax sampling "yielded more cortisol than hair samples," per the release. (Photo courtesy of University College London)

Researchers found that the earwax sampling “yielded more cortisol than hair samples,” per the release. (Photo courtesy of University College London)

In the preliminary study, the 37 participants tried different cortisol sampling methods, like a syringe procedure, said to be painful, and the new device, while researchers also took blood and hair samples. 

“The researchers found that earwax samples yielded more cortisol than hair samples, and the new technique was the fastest and potentially cheapest method,” per the release.

“After this successful pilot study, if our device holds up to further scrutiny in larger trials, we hope to transform diagnostics and care for millions of people with depression or cortisol-related conditions such as Addison’s disease and Cushing syndrome, and potentially numerous other conditions,” Herane-Vives said.

The release also mentioned efforts using the device to detect coronavirus antibodies.

The lead researcher is organizing a new company called “Trears” in hopes to bring the device to the market with support from the university’s startup program.

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