Biosensors - Less Trips to the Hospital?Add to favourite
A visit to the doctor may not be the most exciting pastime in the world, but monitoring your health is something you owe to your own self.
However, the future seems bright from one point of view: imagine that one day the clothes you are wearing will track your physical activity, your vital signs or the health risks you are exposed to, making medical check-ups less and less necessary - it turns out that this future is not so
far away after all. As scary and Orwellian as it may sound, the advantages and potential applications are numerous: enter the world of biosensors!
Much like miners once used to carry a canary in a cage to detect gas, modern-day biosensors are analytical devices that contain a biologically sensitive material capable of detecting a certain analyte.
The detector can be a tissue, a microorganism, an enzyme, an antibody, and once it interacts with the analyte it will convert it into a signal that can be easily measured by an observer.
This technology combines chemistry, physics, biology and electronics and has applications ranging from defense against chemical terrorism, food and water safety, protection of the environment to patient monitoring, preventive medicine, fitness and enhancing athletes' performance: enough to make it something we should all be at least a bit curious about.
Science has come a long way since the first description of a biosensor in 1962 - an amperometric enzyme electrode for glucose.
A biosensor tipically consists of a bio-recognition component, a conductor and an electronic signal that amplifies the signal and displays it. The receptor usually contains molecules that can interact with the particular analyte of interest, thus being able to recognize it.
So far, the most attractive material for modern biosensors is the optical fiber, which offers both flexibility and easy integration. Wound healing monitoring or pH measuring are applications that have already been developped for biosensing optical fibers.
Naturally, the biggest potential of this technology lies in the field of healthcare, where it has the potential to support diagnosis and therapy by obtaining real-time measurements directly on the body, with minimally invasive devices.
When the network of sensors embedded in the fibers of the fabric is in direct contact with the body, the system has access to samples like saliva, tears, breath, urine, or the most accessible one, sweat.
For example, one of the most common biosensors uses glucose oxidase for measuring blood glucose.
Currently available glucose monitors rely on an electrode that detects the hydrogen peroxide produced by glucose oxidase, but the new system has the potential to overcome the limitations of amperometric sensing.
In the future, it is very likely that scientists will start creating DNA biosensors, also for medical,forensic or even agricultural purposes.
The great advantage of DNA-based systems is that no external monitoring will be needed: only an exact match will generate a signal on such a sensor.
One of the companies that expects a growing use of wearable biosensors integrated in textiles is CSEM,the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnics.
Their technology based on optical fibers is designed to respond to specific markers such as pH, glucose, lactate or inflammatory proteins and has the capability to offer real-time monitoring.
Wether for elderly patients, professionals working in a high risk environment or sportsmen and women, this type of product has a high chance of playing a significant part in the future of preventive healthcare.
At the University of Michigan, Professor Nicholas Kotov and his team have created a fabric that can detect blood, an invention that has a huge potential to save lives.
The fibers of this fabric are coated with an antibody called anti-albumin, capable of detecting the protein albumin, a component of blood.
Add a polymer like a solution of carbon nanotubes and the result is a highly conductible material that can send electric signals once it has detected blood.
This is a major breakthrough - think of soldiers missing in action; what if the clothes they are wearing could have the power to warn others of the wearer's wounds even if he or she may be unconscious?
Researchers from Taiwan and U.C. San Diego have identified a growing need for home-based healthcare systems and have consequently developed a way to screen-print electrochemical sensors onto fabric.
The chosen piece of garment was the elastic waistband of underwear: its placement offers direct contact with the skin and has a great potential for monitoring sweeat.
After stress tests simulating the wearer's daily activity, with all the stretching and bending involved, the sensors proved to be resistant enough, and the scientists concluded that their system has a great ptential for future use in either healthcare, military or sports applications.
But healthcare is not the only field that can benefit from such developments. The Swedish company Biosensor offers products for the detection of drugs and explosives, helping authorities stop traficking and consumption and making border control more reliable.
OMsignal is a company that manufactures the so-called Smartwear: high-performance sports gear featuring biometric sensors embedded into the fabric.
Data such as heart rate, breathing rate, physical stress levels, movement intensity can be monitored in real time directly on the user's smartphone, with an application that also offers other useful information, such as post-training recovery advice.
And so the world of biosensors becomes less like science fiction and more like daily life.
In J.G. Ballard's novel Super-Cannes, the European elite gathers in a dystopian business park called Eden-Olympia, where luxurious homes are loaded with high-tech devices that monitor every little aspect of the residents' health, instantly sending all the data to their doctors.
It's hard not to think of such a grim perspective in our very own near future when hearing about such scientific developments, but now that the apple of knowledge has been bitten, all we can do is go as further as possible and make the most of it to our advantage.
Published by Andreea Dobre