Why sensor technology could be at the heart of future health

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Dr Aoife Morrin believes that the “holy grail” of sensor technology lies in the ability to monitor our health via biomarkers in the skin.

Sensors have become at the heart of many technological advancements in recent years and this is reflected in the growing investment in space.

In 2018, Queen’s University Belfast spin-out Causeway Sensors raised £ 1.2million for its nanotechnology to help detect pathogens. In 2020, the Cork Institute of Technology, now part of the Technological University of Munster, was chosen to lead a € 3.8 million European project to build tiny sensors for drones to monitor the ‘environment. And earlier this year, French medical technology start-up Grapheal, which specializes in portable graphene-based biosensors, secured € 1.9 million in funding.

Advances in sensors are being observed in several sectors, from agriculture to pipe maintenance. But one of the main real-world applications is in medical devices and healthcare.

Dr Aoife Morrin is Director of the National Center for Sensor Research (NCSR) and Associate Professor in the School of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University (DCU).

NCSR is working on many aspects of the sensor platform design, with chemistry, biology, physics, and engineering labs all working together.

The center has research groups working in various fields, including wireless transduction technology for implantable sensors, cell detection using new luminescent probes and 3D printing of new biomimetic materials.

The holy grail of sensors

Morrin’s own research group focused on wearable sensors for health diagnostics.

“The holy grail in this space is being able to constantly monitor our health through biomarkers that we can access in the skin. Achieving this would allow personalized management of chronic diseases, for example. So instead of going to a clinic once a month to take a blood sample, we could do the same test at home on a daily basis or even every hour using a portable device that monitors biochemical changes. skin. . “

“We see exciting opportunities for new portable gas sensors”
– AOIFE MORRIN

There have been a lot of exciting advancements in skin sensors in recent years. Last year, researchers found a way to print sensors on the skin without heat, potentially creating a more accurate way to take biometric measurements than wearable devices.

And earlier this year, a team from Trinity College Dublin created a flexible graphene-based sensor that could be a “huge step forward” in the field of portable diagnostic devices.

But while these sensors could allow for better disease management and more effective therapies, Morrin said delivering these wearable devices is easier said than done.

“Even accessing these biomarkers from the skin presents a major challenge. Some researchers use micro-needles – shallow needles that penetrate the skin – to access interstitial fluid but avoid contact with nerve endings, ”she said.

“We took a different approach. We are interested in the emission of gases, or volatiles, which emanate from the skin. Volatiles are continuously released from the glands and microbes that reside on our skin and we want to understand if there are any new biomarkers or disease signatures in this volatile emission.

“If there is, and we believe there is, then we see exciting opportunities for new portable gas sensors that can continuously monitor this emission and give us information about our health.”

Recognize the challenges

The field of sensor technology research is incredibly exciting and when the actual potential applications are presented before us, it is easy to get carried away. However, Morrin said that this excitement can sometimes lead to a tendency to over-sell or over-promise when it comes to publishing research.

She said that although wearable device technology is constantly improving, there are still huge challenges to overcome in designing suitable biochemical sensor interfaces.

“How can we access and sample clinically relevant skin biomarkers in a robust and representative way? How can we design highly selective sensor surfaces for target detection? What can we do to ensure sufficient analytical sensitivity of our sensors? And how do you maintain the integrity of these sensors for continuous monitoring for long periods of time?

“These are all challenges that the research community must fully address before wearable biochemical sensors can become a technology that will impact our lives. “

Morrin was appointed director of the NCSR in March of this year. She sees her role both simplistic but also stimulating.

“I have a role to play in encouraging collaborations and cross-fertilization of research ideas across different schools and even faculties to translate our discipline-specific expertise in DCU into new detection technologies,” she said. .

“It sounds simple but actually involves a lot of effort not only on my part, designing mechanisms to enable this, but it also requires efforts from all of our academics to move this agenda forward and build a culture of true collaboration at the center.” . We’re getting there and, for example, we hope to launch a new collaborative grants program for our NCSR members in the new year – check out this space! “

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