CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Researchers at the University of Virginia Health System think smartwatches may help doctors create more personalized cancer care regimes for patients.

According to a release, they showed the potential of wearable and mobile devices such as smartwatches and smartphones to help tailor treatments to the needs of individual patients.

They found they could use such devices to predict the levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with insomnia and stress, a patient may experience.

The results suggest patients with pancreatic cancer who have high cortisol levels due to disrupted sleep will also experience faster growth of tumors.

The researchers believe doctors could leverage this information to help at-risk patients keep cortisol levels down, thereby showing the growth of tumors.

This work is still in its early stages, but the researchers say it demonstrates the potential for “mobile sensing” to improve cancer care.

In order to pursue this idea, they have created a plan to bring together experts from various fields, including oncology, psychology and engineering/data science, to capitalize on this possibility.

“Our vision is that this could one day lead to individualized cancer treatment that is tailored to the behavioral health profile of the individual patient,” said researcher Philip I. Chow, PhD, of the UVA School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. “We know that patients are diverse in terms of their mental and physical health. Things like insomnia and distress could be important factors in how quickly a patient’s tumor grows and how resistant it is to cancer treatments. We’re trying to advance a more precise model of care that takes into account a patient’s health profile when making decisions about their cancer treatment in order to improve outcomes. It’s a bit outside-the-box thinking, and to our knowledge nobody else is doing it.”

The release says using mobile sensing in this way to improve understanding of cellular and biologically-based disease has been made possible by recent breakthroughs in the ability to model cancer tumors.

Researchers say data about a patient’s hormones from wearable and mobile devices could be fed into tumor modeling systems so that doctors could get insights into their disease and cancer progression.

Researchers say using a system called the tumor microenvironment system, or TMES, to model how tumors grow, they learned that pancreatic cancer cells grew much faster in people with high cortisol levels from disrupted sleep.

However, there are other potential applications of the technology, ranging from understanding how patient behaviors affect cancers to benefiting fundamental cancer research.

“By bringing together different scientific disciplines, we can more effectively model cancer in the laboratory and then possibly learn, one, how a patient’s cancer will respond to specific therapies and, two, how helping manage a patient’s sleep or stress levels can impact that therapy,” said Dan Gioeli, PhD, of UVA’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology. “It is incredibly exciting to be working on a team of scientists with such diverse expertise to do something unique and potentially impactful for patients.”

Scientists think that soon patients may wear a smartwatch connected to an app on their phone that could securely transmit encrypted data to health care providers.

Artificial intelligence would then estimate their hormone levels based on behavioral patterns, displaying those estimates in their electronic health records that could be used by providers to make care decisions.

“Continuously monitoring patients’ underlying hormone levels has immense potential for improving their care, given how impactful they are to cellular function and body systems,” Chow said. “This work is the result of a collaboration across multiple disciplines, including mental and behavioral health, engineering, data science, medical oncology, surgical oncology and cancer biology. By combining our expertise, our aim is to advance cancer treatment that is more precise and tailored to the individual patient.” 

These findings have been published in the scientific journal Internet Interventions.