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Stony Brook Scientists Develop Nanosensor Device

For years, scientists have been trying to improve detecting diseases while they are in their beginning stages.  But, an affordable nanosensor device has developed right in our own backyard. All one needs to do is just breathe.

This device can detect cholesterol levels, diabetes and lung cancer by capturing molecules in breathe, discarding the past methods of taking blood samples to monitor health.  It’s development received positive feedback from industries and businesses on Long Island.

“They keep calling and people are so excited,” said Dr. Perena Gouma, the lead researcher and associate professor and director of the Center for Nanomaterials and Sensor Development in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.  “They think if this technology further develops in Long Island, it’s going to be the Silicon Valley of the east—Nanomedicine Plains,” she said.

The breakthrough came from the substance inside a small vial on Gouma’s office table.  Ceramic.  It detects acetone found in human breath and something that can only exist in -25 degrees celsius, but using nanotechnology they were able to get this material for the first time at room temperature.

“Imagine measuring two molecules of acetone in billions of molecules of air,” Gouma said. “It’s amazing.”

The National Science Foundation funded the project and Gouma explained that the device could range from $20 to $30 or even less depending on its mass production.

“It’s very inexpensive technology, that’s why we have such great response,” she said.

The device requires one exhalation and it responds with the level of the chemical substance monitored, making it user-friendly and noninvasive.

“Breath analysis is like a technique known 2000 years ago,” Gouma said.  “People 2000 years ago know that they can smell the breath to detect disease, but until today there’s not really any such device.”

When Gouma first came to Stony Brook in 2000, the Ford Motor Company sponsored the chemical sensors laboratory to develop sensors for automotive exhaust.  Once this happened, they realized they were in a good position to test for gases in other environments, hence the human breath.

The team’s research focused on developing new materials selective to specific gas molecules.

“All of the materials researched were candidates for this device,” said Aisha Bishop, who graduated in 2008 with her PhD and is currently a materials engineer for the U.S. Army Armaments Research, Development, and Engineering Center in New Jersey.

“My dissertation research focused on conducting polymers for selective room temperature sensing of pH and other biomarkers found in human breath.”

Dr. Krithika Kalyanasundaram, a former student at Stony Brook University and Gouma’s co-author on the nanosensor device publication, currently lives in Colorodo.  She started working with Dr Gouma in 2004 when she began her PhD.

Gouma had her team develop electric noses and tongues, instruments that mimic smell and taste to tell compounds apart.

Kalyanasundaram developed the sensors for biomarkers, such as ammonia and acetone, both detected in the human breath.

“I integrated the different sensors in to an electronic nose array for real world simulated breath testing,” she said.

The project evolved within lab rooms 201 and 203 of the Engineering building.  People from different parts of the world knew about it, but to the campus it was the best-kept secret.

“We worked together very well as a group and when there were opportunities for us to work with other researchers at Stony Brook, Dr. Gouma always supported these collaborations,” Bishop said.  “Typically they involved use of materials characterization capabilities that we didn’t have in our lab.  These efforts did foster both professional and personal growth of each individual in our team.  I think that’s important for a graduate student.  It teaches them that the world is bigger than their bubble, and to be successful you have to learn to work with others.”

“I think that this technology is extremely interesting it’s got a lot of promise,” said Dr. Kenneth Shroyer, chair of Pathology at Stony Brook Medical Center.

“Potential application for monitoring diabetes relies on the analysis on metabolites that would be present in abnormal levels and detectable in breath vapor.  That’s an entirely appropriate approach for that type of a disease process, it’s a metabolic disease as opposed to cancer, which is not a metabolic disease but is a disease caused by an abnormal proliferation of cells.”

Shroyer said that the ability to translate this type of technology into looking for other diseases like cancer also depends on defining molecular markers.

“This device is a breakthrough in non-invasive diagnostic medicine. This device puts the power of disease detection right in people’s hands and it will be very affordable.” Kalyanasundaram said.

The device is still in preclinical trials so it has not been tested in the hospital with a particular population.

In regards to the device going on the market, it’s in the university’s hands.  Gouma predicts the acetone diabetes sensor, could go on the market in a year with no problem as well as the asthma sensor, and the lung cancer sensor in a couple of years.

Gouma said they have received emails from families of people who have diabetes or lung cancer.

“For them it’s very important that we continue,” she said.  “They’re asking for us to continue and make this product available because they think it’s going to make a big difference to people.”

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