New sensors could enable more affordable detection of pollution and diseases

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When it comes to testing for cancer, environmental pollution and food contaminants, traditional sensors can help. The challenges are that they often are bulky, expensive, non-intuitive and complicated. Now, one team reports in ACS Sensors that portable pressure-based detectors coupled with smartphone software could provide a simpler, more affordable alternative while still maintaining sensitivity.

Current disease and contamination sensors require expensive readout equipment or trained personnel. Yuehe Lin, Yong Tang and colleagues propose a new detection system based on pressure changes. For example, when a disease biomarker is present, it causes a chain reaction in the device that results in oxygen being released and pressure building. The pressure changes are measured by a portable barometer, and smartphone software provides an easy readout of the results.

To show the versatility of the pressure sensor, the team tested a variety of applications. Prototypes could detect carcinoembryonic antigen, a protein present in high levels in patients with colon or rectal cancer; ractopamine, which is an animal-feed additive banned in many countries; and thrombin, a cardiovascular disease marker. In addition, a mercury-ion sensor was developed for environmental pollution monitoring. The researchers say that because the results are immediately available with a smartphone, the method could enable real-time monitoring of environmental pollution, disease outbreaks and food safety.

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The authors acknowledge funding from the National Key Development Program of China, the Technology Research Program of Guangzhou City, the Technology Research Program of Guangdong Province and the Guangdong Innovative and Entrepreneurial Research Team Program.

The abstract that accompanies this study is available here.

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