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Novel sensors to detect disease and new generation wearable devices

28 April 2017
New funding for our remarkable researchers

Two outstanding researchers have received fellowships: to develop sensors for disease and contamination detection, and create a new generation of wearable devices and membranes from novel carbon nanomaterials.

Polymer lipid solutions

Pictured are polymer-lipid solutions that have unique optical properties. They can undergo a colorimetric transition from blue to red in the presence of molecules, making them excellent materials for sensing a range of chemical and biological targets, such as ions, pH, gas, proteins and biomarkers in diseases.

Two remarkable researchers in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Sydney have commenced their Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) and Future Fellowships this month.

Dr Rona Chandrawati will be working to develop sensors for disease and contamination detection, while Professor Yuan Chen is looking to create a new generation of wearable devices and membranes from novel carbon nanomaterials.

Using nanotechnology building blocks, Dr Chandrawati is designing a sensor aimed at alerting patients to early signs of cancer, as well as a system for tracking food contamination.

"Let's think of a home pregnancy test kit. We are aiming to develop a device using a similar principle to measure the presence of cancer biomarkers found in bodily fluids so that people at risk of cancer will be able to seek medical advice in the early stages of the disease. The sooner a disease is diagnosed, the more likely it is to be treated", says Dr Chandrawati.

Dr Chandrawati is also working on a kit to monitor heavy metal concentration in the body with particular application for patients who have metal-on-metal hip implants. In the future, this technology could be packaged in a convenient portable device and patients could withdraw a drop of blood at home to monitor heavy metal build up over time. Such toxicity can produce symptoms such as chronic muscle pain, fatigue, gastrointestinal complaints, dizziness and depression, among others. Current detection techniques for heavy metal poisoning are costly, time-consuming, and require specialised equipment. There is a need to develop a test kit that is cheap, fast, and accurate.

Sensors have become important tools in detecting the presence of molecules and can help us make wise decisions, such as determining whether foods are contaminated or water unsafe to drink. In terms of food safety, sensors can be developed in the form of a sticker or film that can be attached to food packaging and changes colour when the food is contaminated with bacteria or not suitable for consumption.

Professor Yuan Chen

Professor Yuan Chen

There are more than four million cases of food poisoning in Australia each year, costing $1.2 billion annually. Many of these foodborne illnesses are preventable through rapid detection of bacterial pathogens, toxins and contaminants in food and water samples.

Through the development of new low-cost, easy-to-use technologies that alert consumers on food safety, this number of cases could potentially be dramatically reduced and there could be major savings in medical costs. By tracking food quality and changes in the product shelf life, food waste could be minimised and this could potentially benefit food supply chain management.'

Professor Yuan Chen's ARC Future Fellowship aims to demonstrate the technical feasibility of fabric supercapacitors, wearable strain/moisture sensors and carbon membranes, moving the fundamental research of carbon nanomaterials to advanced manufacturing techniques.

In the last 30 years, many exciting properties of carbon nanomaterials have been discovered. However, few studies have been able to successfully translate these exceptional nanoscale properties into practical applications. A key scientific challenge is that nanomaterials often lose their desired nanoscale properties when used as the building block of macroscopic systems.

Dr Rona Chandrawati

Dr Rona Chandrawati

Novel carbon structures developed in this project will find a wide usage in creating a new generation of wearable electronics, sensors and water treatment technology. Integrated into textiles, these energy storage devices may power new functions, such as sensing, therapy, navigation and communication, while preserving good wearability similar to the original fabric.

Some of the technical challenges Professor Chen and his team are facing include toxicity, flame resistance, and the mechanical flexibility, stretchability and water resistance of the end product.

"Our researchers and engineers are looking towards scalable manufacturing and financial viability for the marketplace", says Professor Chen. "We're looking at whether these textile energy storage devices are washable for repeated use or disposable after one use."

This project will also create fascinating research opportunities for our engineering students to advance the research frontiers in carbon science, chemical process engineering, and advanced manufacturing.

"Nanomaterials and nanotechnology are two exciting research areas opening up new possibilities for industry to help us live happier and healthier lives", says Professor Dianne Wiley, Head of School, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. "Professor Chen and Dr Chandrawati are at the cutting edge of these developments."