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UK funds development of laser-printable paper biosensors

20 Nov 2013

Paper-based tests for disease biomarkers could transform patient diagnostics.

Research by the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), at the University of Southampton, UK, that could transform the care of cancer patients or people with infections in their own homes, has been awarded a significant grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Senior Research Fellow Collin Sones and Rob Eason are working with colleagues from Medicine and the Institute of Life Sciences – Spiros Garbis, Peter Smith and Saul Faust – to develop laser-printed paper-based sensors that can be used to detect biomarkers in cancer patients and see how they are responding to their chemotherapy treatment.

The team has been awarded more than £230,000 ($370,000) EPSRC funding to explore whether Laser-Induced Forward Transfer (LIFT) printing of biological materials can be used to develop the sensor device on paper. The research aims to develop paper-based sensors that are robust, inexpensive, user-friendly, disposable, for use wherever the patient might be.

How LIFT works

LIFT involves the pixellated transfer of material from a thin film coated onto the rear side of a transparent support substrate. Transfer is induced by focusing laser pulses onto the support-film interface, where heating and phase change of the film provide the propulsion to propel material to a receiving substrate placed nearby.

The sensors are planned to be telemedicine-enabled, allowing transfer of valuable clinical diagnostic information between patients and their care team over mobile phones. These personalized tests will be possible while maintaining security and anonymity of their results through laser-printed 2D bar codes of biological material that change color depending on the result.

Dr Sones commented, “The funding is recognition of the impact laser-printed, paper-based biosensors will be able to make towards saving human lives by making possible rapid, remote and real-time diagnosis of many targeted diseases. The paper-based sensors would enable diagnosis at an early stage, from a patient’s bedside in the comfort of their own home, without the need for either specialized equipment or trained medical personnel on hand.

“This research is an important step for the ORC. It is a completely new area for us and is the beginning of our collaborative cross-disciplinary work with our colleagues in Medicine and the Institute of Life Sciences. Once we prove that laser printing works, and we can develop a paper-based sensor, then this has the potential to revolutionize medical treatment because the technology can be used to make devices for a wide range of medical conditions.”

The biomarkers for breast cancer have already been identified and validated in a pilot study by academics in Southampton’s department of Medicine and the Institute of Life Sciences. These are now being used to study the response of patients receiving chemotherapy.

If successful, these paper-based sensors would prove invaluable in rapidly testing for detection and diagnosis of conditions including cancer and infectious diseases such as influenza, HIV and tuberculosis. They would allow the rapid testing for these conditions in a safe, inexpensive and flexible way that would have enormous benefits in time, cost and improvement of patient care. The research will continue over the next 18 months.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

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