Why sensor technology could be at the heart of future health

Dr Aoife Morrin believes the ‘holy grail’ of sensor technology lies in the ability to monitor our health via biomarkers in the skin.

Sensors have become central to many technological advances in recent years and this is reflected in the growing investment in the space.

In 2018, Queen’s University Belfast spin-out Causeway Sensors raised £1.2m for its nanotechnology to enable pathogen detection. In 2020, Cork Institute of Technology, now part of Munster Technological University, was chosen to lead a €3.8m EU project to build tiny sensors for drones to monitor the environment. And earlier this year, French medtech start-up Grapheal, which specialises in graphene-based wearable biosensors, secured €1.9m in funding.

The advancements in sensors are seen across several industries, from farming to pipe maintenance. But one of the major real-world applications is within the area of medical devices and healthcare.

Dr Aoife Morrin is director of the National Centre for Sensor Research (NCSR) and associate professor at the School of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University (DCU).

The NCSR works on many aspects of sensor platform design, with chemistry, biology, physics and engineering labs all working together.

The centre has research groups working in a variety of areas, including wireless transduction technology for implantable sensors, cell-based detection using novel luminescent probes and the 3D printing of new biomimetic materials.

The holy grail of sensors

Morrin’s own research group has been focused on wearable sensors for health diagnostics.

“The holy grail in this space is to be able to continuously monitor our health via biomarkers that we can access in the skin. Achieving this would enable personalised management of chronic disease, for example – so instead of attending a clinic once a month to take a blood sample, we could perform the same analysis at home daily or even hourly using a wearable that monitors biochemical changes in the skin.”

‘We see exciting opportunities for new wearable gas sensors’

There have been plenty of exciting advancements in skin sensors in recent years. Last year, researchers found a way to print sensors onto skin without heat, potentially creating a more accurate way of taking biometric measurements than wearable devices.

And earlier this year, a team at Trinity College Dublin created a flexible graphene-based sensor that could be a “considerable step forward” in the area of wearable diagnostic devices.

But while these sensors could enable better disease management and more effective therapies, Morrin said delivering on these wearables is easier said than done.

“Even accessing these biomarkers from skin presents a major challenge. Some researchers use microneedles – shallow needles that penetrate the skin – to access the interstitial fluid but avoid contact with the nerve endings,” she said.

“We have taken a different approach. We are interested in the gas, or volatile, emission that comes off skin. Volatiles are being released continuously from the glands and the microbes that are resident on our skin and we want to understand if there are new biomarkers or signatures of disease within this volatile emission.

“If there are, and we believe there are, then we see exciting opportunities for new wearable gas sensors that can continuously monitor this emission and give us insights about our health.”

Recognising challenges

The field of sensor technology research is incredibly exciting and when the potential real-life applications are laid out in front of us, it’s easy to get carried away. However, Morrin said this excitement can sometimes lead to a tendency to oversell or overpromise when it comes to publishing research.

She said that while wearables technology is improving all the time, there are still massive challenges to overcome in designing suitable biochemical sensor interfaces.

“How can we access and sample clinically relevant skin biomarkers robustly and in a representative manner? How can we design sensor surfaces to be highly selective for target detection? What can we do to ensure sufficient analytical sensitivity of our sensors? And how do we retain the integrity of these sensors for continuous monitoring for extended periods of time?

“These are all challenges that the research community needs to fully address before wearable biochemical sensors can become a technology that will have an impact on our lives.”

Morrin was appointed director of the NCSR in March of this year. She sees her role as both simplistic but also challenging.

“I have a role in incentivising collaborations and cross-fertilisation of research ideas across the different schools and even faculties to translate our discipline-specific expertise in DCU into new sensing technologies,” she said.

“This sounds simple but actually involves a lot of effort not only on my part, devising mechanisms to enable this, but it also requires effort from all our academics to push this agenda and to drive a culture of genuine collaboration in the centre. We are getting there, and for instance we hope to launch a new collaborative grant scheme for our NCSR members in the new year – watch this space!”

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Marcy Willis

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