4th Jun 2019

Molecule-sized sensors detect disease from a droplet of blood

4th Jun 2019

Curated by Dr Ioulia Tzouvadaki

Nanosensors can spot diseases at very early stages

Scientists have developed a portable nano-sensor system that can help spot illnesses before people develop symptoms. The technology also enables doctors to closely monitor the performance of drugs, opening a new chapter in personalised medicine.

In 10 seconds? Scientists have created a portable device that uses near-molecule sized sensors to find early warning signs of certain diseases. A droplet of blood is enough to predict prostate cancer, for example, making it possible to initiate early intervention. (Read the science)

So what’s the discovery that enabled this? On one hand, it is the developments in nanosensors on the other it’s our ability to lift these out of the experimental phase and incorporate them into devices. Our team has managed to create a so-called point-of-care device, that can be used in the clinic. (Read more)

And what’s the benefit of these nanosensors? Apart from early detection of ‘biomarkers’ – molecules that are associated with certain diseases, they offer much more painless and immediate results. Even a diluted droplet of blood was enough to spot prostate cancer biomarkers. This allows doctors to start therapy early before serious damage has happened. Nanosensors also enable us to personalise medical care. We can continuously monitor a drug’s concentration levels in the blood and adjust the dose to the patient’s needs. (Find out more)

How do they work? Nanosensors are made of extremely thin wires and a graphene nanowall. They are almost the same size as the biomarkers. The nanostructure acts as an electrode and is connected to an electrical readout system. Antibodies are attached to its surface and when they see a certain biomarker in the blood sample, they ‘grab’ it. This alters the electrical signal and that can be translated as the concentration of the biomarker in the blood. It lets us see how serious the patient’s condition is and also how well they have responded to drug therapy. (Read more)

And how do you build nanosensors? Nanostructures are built in ‘cleanrooms’, laboratories with extremely low levels of dust and other particles in the air. Here, the designed patterns of nanostructures are created on masks with electron beam, ion beam or other methods of lithography. The nanosensors are then ‘functionalised’ which means, specific antibodies are added to their surfaces so that they can look for specific disease biomarkers or traces of administered drugs in blood samples. (Find out more)

And what can we expect in the future? Nanosensors can be integrated with microfluidics – that studies the behaviour of fluids on a micro level, for example in capillaries - and electronics. This will create fully independent sensing devices that let doctors design more accurate drug doses. Meanwhile, patients will be able to perform health tests at home. Wearable biosensors will continuously monitor crucial biomarkers or therapeutic compounds and forward the results to doctors wirelessly or via the internet. (Read more)

Nanosensors can work with sweat and breath too

Scientists are working on training nanosensors not just on blood, but human sweat and breath as well, to identify diseases.

Biomarkers appearing in sweat can also be spotted by wearable sensor patches that work without batteries. They could be useful in sports but also to monitor blood glucose levels for diabetes patients or diagnose cystic fibrosis or kidney disease patients.

Korean researchers have created nanosensors that detect biomarkers via human breath, providing insights into asthma, lung cancer and type I diabetes conditions. The device works on the concept that the patient exhales into a bag and the nanosensors send their results to a smartphone.

(Psst, Ioulia distilled 13 research papers to save you 812.1 min)

Curated by

Dr Ioulia Tzouvadaki

Researcher Prize Winner February 2019 Post-doctoral fellow at the University of Southampton, researching nanotechnology, bio-sensing and memristors.

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