E-Nose Can Sniff Out Disease and Health Biomarkers

This sensing device can detect and identify volatile organic compounds that are excreted through your skin or breath.

This electronic “nose,” wearable, disposable, and smaller than a quarter, can detect biomarkers associated with health and disease. (📷: University of Nebraska)

Wearable, wireless, and able to detect and identify volatile organic compounds or VOCs, the electronic nose developed by a team of Nebraska Engineering researchers can sniff out markers of health or disease excreted from the human body. Placed on the skin, clipped on clothing, or integrated with a mask, the sensor passively identifies chemical patterns, also known as breathprint signatures, which can be useful in identifying markers of illness.

The “nose” is composed of an array of conductive polymer filaments that interact with chemicals. Created with a two-layer system of multi-walled carbon nanotubes and four different solution-processable polymers, the filaments are paired with a near-field communication (NFC) chip and an NFC antenna.

The sensor was validated using a combination of six VOCs that are commonly excreted from the human body — acetic acid, ammonium hydroxide, ethanol, methanol, pyridine, and triethylamine — all of which are associated with health or disease. The obtained “breathprint” signature, which consists of the resistance of each filament, can be read via any NFC-enabled device, such as a smartphone, and analyzed to aid in disease diagnosis. The team has also worked to develop an app that pairs with the nose to aid in collecting and analyzing data.

A presentation of the design given during the five-minute pitch competition at the Design of Medical Devices Conference — which evaluates on criteria of quality of clinical need statement, the technical soundness of research, presentation quality, and fundability — was chosen as one of three winners and awarded a $500 prize.

Currently, the sensor is being tested on two groups of patients at the University of Nebraska Medical Center: patients with suspected COVID-19, and those with confirmed cases of COVID-19. This pilot study will help the researchers understand whether the device can be used to discriminate between these two patient populations. The team is hopeful that the affordable, disposable sensors will be an important tool to better understand and diagnose disease.

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