Researchers at the University of Illinois have found a way to detect disease markers in breath and toxins in a building’s air, all with a thin square of organic plastic.
According to researchers, the porous plastic film, which could be the foundation of portable, disposable sensor devices, is sensitive enough to detect disease markers even at levels that are too low to smell.
"In the clinical setting, physicians use bulky instruments, basically the size of a big table, to detect and analyze these compounds. We want to hand out a cheap sensor chip to patients so they can use it and throw it away," said Ying Diao, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Illinois.
Published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, Professor Diao details how the device monitors the presence of ammonia in breath (an indication of kidney failure).
In its first demonstration, the device was used to monitor changes in a patient’s ammonia concentrations, giving them an early warning signal to call their doctors.
Researchers selected a material that is highly reactive to ammonia but not to other compounds in breath. However, researchers realized that by changing the composition of the sensor, they could create devices that are tuned to other compounds. As a result, the researchers have designed an environmental monitor that detects formaldehyde (an indoor pollutant) in new or refurbished buildings.
The group is working to make sensors with multiple functions to get a more complete picture of a patient's health.
"We would like to be able to detect multiple compounds at once, like a chemical fingerprint," Diao said. "It's useful because in disease conditions, multiple markers will usually change concentration at once. By mapping out the chemical fingerprints and how they change, we can more accurately point to signs of potential health issues."