New Low-Cost Sensors Could Soon Monitor a Range of Health Conditions

A low-cost sensor made from semiconducting plastic could be used to diagnose or monitor a wide range of health conditions, such as surgical complications or neurodegenerative diseases. (Image: KAUST)
A low-cost sensor made from semiconducting plastic could be used to diagnose or monitor a wide range of health conditions, such as surgical complications or neurodegenerative diseases. (Image: KAUST)

An international team of researchers has developed a low-cost sensor made from semiconducting plastic that can be used to diagnose or monitor a wide range of health conditions, such as surgical complications or neurodegenerative diseases. The sensor can measure the amount of critical metabolites, such as lactate or glucose, that are present in sweat, tears, saliva or blood, and, when incorporated into a diagnostic device, could allow health conditions to be monitored quickly, cheaply and accurately.

The new device has a far simpler design than existing sensors and opens up a wide range of new possibilities for health monitoring down to the cellular level. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances. The device was developed by a team led by the University of Cambridge and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

Semiconducting plastics, such as those used in the current work, are being developed for use in solar cells and flexible electronics, but have not yet seen widespread use in biological applications. Lead author Dr. Anna-Maria Pappa, a postdoctoral researcher in Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, said:

To build their sensor, Pappa and her colleagues used a newly-synthesized polymer developed at Imperial College that acts as a molecular wire, directly accepting the electrons produced during electrochemical reactions. When the material comes into contact with a liquid — such as sweat, tears or blood — it absorbs ions and swells, becoming merged with the liquid. This leads to significantly higher sensitivity compared to traditional sensors made of metal electrodes.

Additionally, when the sensors are incorporated into more complex circuits, such as transistors, the signal can be amplified and respond to tiny fluctuations in metabolite concentration despite the tiny size of the devices. Initial tests of the sensors were used to measure levels of lactate, which is useful in fitness applications or to monitor patients following surgery.

However, according to the researchers, the sensor can be easily modified to detect other metabolites, such as glucose or cholesterol, by incorporating the appropriate enzyme, and the concentration range that the sensor can detect can be adjusted by changing the device’s geometry. Pappa explained:

Since the sensor does not consist of metals, such as gold or platinum, it can be manufactured at a lower cost and can be easily incorporated in flexible and stretchable substrates, enabling their implementation in wearable or implantable sensing applications. Pappa said:

The researchers now plan to develop the sensor to monitor metabolic activity of human cells in real time outside the body. The Bioelectronic Systems and Technologies group where Pappa is based is focused on developing models that can closely mimic our organs, along with technologies that can accurately assess them in real-time. The developed sensor technology can be used with these models to test the potency or toxicity of drugs.

Provided by: University of Chicago Medicine [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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