Tag Archives: biosensors

A smart shirt at the Canadian Space Agency

Caption: Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques tries the Bio-Monitor, a new Canadian technology, for the first time in space (January 16, 2019). The innovative smart shirt system is designed to measure and record astronauts’ vital signs. Credit: Canadian Space Agency/NASA

Here’s a biosensor announcement from an April 27, 2021 Experimental Biology (annual meeting) news release on EurekAlert,

A technology-packed tank top offers a simple, effective way to track astronauts’ vital signs and physiological changes during spaceflight, according to research being presented at the American Physiological Society annual meeting during the Experimental Biology (EB) 2021 meeting, held virtually April 27-30.

By monitoring key health markers over long periods of time with one non-intrusive device, researchers say the garment can help improve understanding of how spaceflight affects the body.

“Until now, the heart rate and activity levels of astronauts were monitored by separate devices,” said Carmelo Mastrandrea, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging in Canada, and the study’s first author. “The Bio-Monitor shirt allows simultaneous and continuous direct measurements of heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen saturation in the blood, physical activity and skin temperature, and provides a continuous estimate of arterial systolic blood pressure.”

The Bio-Monitor shirt was developed for the Canadian Space Agency by Carré Technologies based on its commercially available Hexoskin garment. In a study funded by the Canadian Space Agency, a team of researchers from the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging oversaw the first test of the shirt in space for a scientific purpose. Astronauts wore the shirt continually for 72 hours before their spaceflight and 72 hours during spaceflight, except for periods of water immersion or when the device conflicted with another activity.

The shirt’s sensors and accelerometer performed well, providing consistent results and a large amount of usable data. Based on these initial results, researchers say the shirt represents an improvement over conventional methods for monitoring astronauts’ health, which require more hands-on attention.

“By monitoring continuously and non-intrusively, we remove the psychological impacts of defined testing periods from astronaut measurements,” said Mastrandrea. “Additionally, we are able to gather information during normal activities over several days, including during daily activities and sleep, something that traditional testing cannot achieve.”

In flight, the astronauts recorded far less physical activity than the two and a half hours per day recorded in the monitoring period before takeoff, a finding that aligns with previous studies showing large reductions in physical activity during spaceflight. In addition to monitoring astronauts’ health and physical activity in space, Mastrandrea noted that the shirt could provide early warning of any health problems that occur as their bodies re-adapt to gravity back on Earth.

The commercial version of the Bio-Monitor shirt is available to the public, where it can be used for various applications including assessing athletic performance and monitoring the health of people with limited mobility. In addition to spaceflight, researchers are examining its potential use in other occupational settings that involve extreme environments, such as firefighting.

Mastrandrea will present this research in poster R2888 (abstract). Contact the media team for more information or to obtain a free press pass to access the virtual meeting.

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About Experimental Biology 2021

Experimental Biology is an annual meeting comprised of thousands of scientists from five host societies and multiple guest societies. With a mission to share the newest scientific concepts and research findings shaping clinical advances, the meeting offers an unparalleled opportunity for exchange among scientists from across the U.S. and the world who represent dozens of scientific areas, from laboratory to translational to clinical research. http://www.experimentalbiology.org #expbio

About the American Physiological Society (APS)

Physiology is a broad area of scientific inquiry that focuses on how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. The American Physiological Society connects a global, multidisciplinary community of more than 10,000 biomedical scientists and educators as part of its mission to advance scientific discovery, understand life and improve health. The Society drives collaboration and spotlights scientific discoveries through its 16 scholarly journals and programming that support researchers and educators in their work. http://www.physiology.org

Mastrandrea’s abstract offers details explaining what makes this particular biosensor a new technology (from the ‘(R2888) Tracking astronaut physical activity and cardiorespiratory responses with the Bio-Monitor sensor shirt‘ abstract at the Experimental Biology (EB) 2021 meeting,

Carmelo Mastrandrea (Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging)| Danielle Greaves (Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging)| Richard Hughson (Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging)

Astronauts develop insulin resistance, and are at risk for cardiovascular deconditioning, during long-duration missions to the International Space Station (ISS) despite their daily exercise sessions (Hughson et al. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol 310: H628–H638, 2016). Chronic unloading of the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems in microgravity dramatically reduces the challenge of daily activities, and the astronauts’ schedules limit them to approximately 30-min/day aerobic exercise. To understand the physical demands of spaceflight and how these change from daily life on Earth, the Vascular Aging experiment is equipping astronauts for 48-72h continuous recordings with the Canadian Space Agency’s Bio-Monitor wearable sensor shirt. The Bio-Monitor (Bio-M), developed from the commercial Hexoskin® device, consists of 3-lead ECG, thoracic and abdominal respiratory bands, 3-axis accelerometer, skin temperature and SpO2 sensor placed on the forehead. Our utilisation of this equipment necessitated the development of novel processing and visualisation techniques, to better interpret and guide subsequent data analyses [emphasis mine]. Here we present initial data from astronauts wearing the BioM prior to launch and aboard the ISS, demonstrating the ability to extract useful data from BioM, using software developed ‘in-house’.

Astronauts wore the Bio-M continually for 72-h except for periods of water immersion or when the device conflicted with another activity. After physical exercise, astronauts changed to a dry shirt. First, we assessed the key data-quality metrics to provide initial appraisals of acceptable recordings. Mean total recording length pre-flight (60.5 hours) was similar to that in-flight (66.5 hours), with a consistent distribution of recorded day (44% vs 45%, 6am-6pm) and night (56% vs 55%, 6pm-6am) hours (pre-flight vs in-flight respectively).

For each recording, quality assessment of ECG signals was performed for individual leads, before combining signals and cross-correlating R-waves to produce reliable heart-rate timings. Mean ECG quality for individual leads, represented here as the percentage of usable signal to total recording duration, was somewhat lower in-flight (92%) when compared to pre-flight (96%), likely caused by poor skin contact or dry shirt electrodes; combining lead signals as mentioned above improved the proportion of usable data to 97% and 98% respectively. Accelerometer recordings identified a significant reduction in high-force movements over the 72-hour recordings, with just over 2.5 hours/day of high-force activity in astronauts pre-flight vs 50 minutes/day in-flight. It should be noted however that accelerometer measurements in zero-gravity are likely to be reduced, and future refinement of activity data continues. Average heart rates in-flight showed little difference when compared to pre-flight, although future analyses will compare periods of sleep, rest, and activity to further refine this comparison.

We conclude that utilisation of the BioM hardware with our own analysis techniques produces high-quality data allowing for future interpretation and investigation of spaceflight-induced physiological adaptations.

As for Hexoskin (Carré Technologies inc.), I found out more on the About Us webpage of the Hexoskin website (Note: Links have been removed),

Hexoskin (Carré Technologies inc.)

Founded in 2006 in Montreal [Canada], Hexoskin is a growing private company, leader in non-invasive sensors, software, data science & AI services. The company headquartered in the bustling Rosemont neighborhood, provides solutions and services directly to customers & researchers; and through B2B contracts in pharmaceutical, academics, healthcare, security, defense, first responders, aerospace public & private organizations.

Hexoskin’s mission has always been to make the precise health data collected by its body-worn sensors accessible and useful for everyone. When the cofounders Pierre-Alexandre Fournier and Jean-François Roy started the company back in 2006, the existing technologies to report rich health data continuously didn’t exist. Hexoskin took a different approach to non-portable and invasive monitoring solutions by releasing in 2013 the first washable Smart Shirts that captures cardiac, respiratory, and activity body metrics. Today Hexoskin’s main R&D focus is the development of innovative body-worn sensors for health, mobile, and distributed software for health data management and analysis.

Since then, Hexoskin has designed the Hexoskin Connected Health Platform, a system to minimize user setup time and to maximize vital signs monitoring over long periods in a non-obstructive way with sensors embedded in a Smart Shirt. Data are synced to local and remote servers for health data management and analysis.
The Hexoskin Smart Garments are clinically validated and are developed involving patients & clients to be comfortable and easy to use.

The system is the next evolution to improve the standard of care in the following therapeutic areas: respiratory, cardiology, mental health, behavioral and physiological psychology, somnology, aging and physical performance, physical conditioning & wellbeing etc.

Next Generation Biometric Smart Shirts

Hexoskin supported the evolution of its 100% washable industry-leading Hexoskin Smart Garments to offer an easy and comfortable solution for continuously monitoring precise data during daily activities and sleep. Hexoskin is a machine washable Smart garment, designed and made in Canada that allows precise long-term monitoring of respiratory, cardiac and activity functions simultaneously, as well as sleep quality. 

Users are provided access the Hexoskin Connected Health Platform, an end-to-end system that supplies the tools to report and analyze precise data from the Hexoskin & third-party body-worn sensors. The platform offers apps for iOS, Android, and Watch OS devices. Users can access from anywhere an online dashboard with advanced reporting and analytics functionalities. Today, the Hexoskin Connected Platform is used worldwide and supported thousands of users and organizations to achieve their goals.

In 2019, Hexoskin launched the new Hexoskin ProShirt line for Men and Women with an all-new design to withstand the most active lifestyle and diverse daily living activities. The Hexoskin ProShirtcomes with built-in textile ECG & Respiratory sensors and a precise Activity sensor. The ProShirt works with the latest Hexoskin Smart recording device to offer uninterrupted continuous 24-hour monitoring. 

Today, the Hexoskin ProShirt are used by professional athletes for performance training, police & first responders for longitudinal stress monitoring, and patients in clinical trials living with chronic cardiac & respiratory conditions. 

Connected Health & Software Solutions

Hexoskin provides interoperable software solutions, secure and private infrastructure and data science services to support research and professional organizations. The system is designed to reduce the frequency of travel and allow remote communication between patients, study volunteers, caregivers, and researchers. Hexoskin is an efficient and precise solution that collects daily quantitative data from users, in their everyday lives, and over long periods of time. 

Conscious of the need for its users to understand how the data is collected and interpreted, Hexoskin early took a transparent approach by opening and documenting its Application Programing Interface (API). Today, part of Hexoskin’s success can be attributed to its community of developers and scientists that are leveraging its Connected Health Platform to create new applications and interventions not possible just a few years ago. 

Future Applications—remote health to space exploration

Since 2011, Hexoskin collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency on the Astroskin, a cutting edge Space Grade Smart Garment, now used in the International Space Station to monitor the astronauts’ health in Space. The Astroskin Vital Signs Monitoring Platform is also available to conduct research on earth.

Hexoskin hopes to bring the innovations developed for Space and its Hexoskin Connected Health Platform to support the growing need to provide patients’ access to affordable and adapted healthcare services remotely. Future applications include healthcare, chronic disease management, sleep medicine, aging at home, security & defense, and space exploration missions.

Hexoskin shirts, as noted earlier, are available commercially while inquiries about Astroskin shirts are welcomed (Note: Links have been removed),

Thinking that Astroskin will be perfect for your next study or project? Contact us  to discuss how Astroskin can support your next project. You can also request a demo of the Astroskin Vital Signs Monitoring Platform here.

Finally, I noticed that the researchers on this project were from the Schlegel-UW [University of Waterloo] Research Institute for Aging. I gather this was all about aging.

Nanosensors use AI to explore the biomolecular world

EPFL scientists have developed AI-powered nanosensors that let researchers track various kinds of biological molecules without disturbing them. Courtesy: École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

If you look at the big orange dot (representing the nanosensors?), you’ll see those purplish/fuschia objects resemble musical notes (biological molecules?). I think that brainlike object to the left and in light blue is the artificial intelligence (AI) component. (If anyone wants to correct my guesses or identify the bits I can’t, please feel free to add to the Comments for this blog.)

Getting back to my topic, keep the ‘musical notes’ in mind as you read about some of the latest research from l’École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in an April 7, 2021 news item on Nanowerk,

The tiny world of biomolecules is rich in fascinating interactions between a plethora of different agents such as intricate nanomachines (proteins), shape-shifting vessels (lipid complexes), chains of vital information (DNA) and energy fuel (carbohydrates). Yet the ways in which biomolecules meet and interact to define the symphony of life is exceedingly complex.

Scientists at the Bionanophotonic Systems Laboratory in EPFL’s School of Engineering have now developed a new biosensor that can be used to observe all major biomolecule classes of the nanoworld without disturbing them. Their innovative technique uses nanotechnology, metasurfaces, infrared light and artificial intelligence.

To each molecule its own melody

In this nano-sized symphony, perfect orchestration makes physiological wonders such as vision and taste possible, while slight dissonances can amplify into horrendous cacophonies leading to pathologies such as cancer and neurodegeneration.

An April 7, 2021 EPFL press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Tuning into this tiny world and being able to differentiate between proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and carbohydrates without disturbing their interactions is of fundamental importance for understanding life processes and disease mechanisms,” says Hatice Altug, the head of the Bionanophotonic Systems Laboratory. 

Light, and more specifically infrared light, is at the core of the biosensor developed by Altug’s team. Humans cannot see infrared light, which is beyond the visible light spectrum that ranges from blue to red. However, we can feel it in the form of heat in our bodies, as our molecules vibrate under the infrared light excitation.

Molecules consist of atoms bonded to each other and – depending on the mass of the atoms and the arrangement and stiffness of their bonds – vibrate at specific frequencies. This is similar to the strings on a musical instrument that vibrate at specific frequencies depending on their length. These resonant frequencies are molecule-specific, and they mostly occur in the infrared frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum. 

“If you imagine audio frequencies instead of infrared frequencies, it’s as if each molecule has its own characteristic melody,” says Aurélian John-Herpin, a doctoral assistant at Altug’s lab and the first author of the publication. “However, tuning into these melodies is very challenging because without amplification, they are mere whispers in a sea of sounds. To make matters worse, their melodies can present very similar motifs making it hard to tell them apart.” 

Metasurfaces and artificial intelligence

The scientists solved these two issues using metasurfaces and AI. Metasurfaces are man-made materials with outstanding light manipulation capabilities at the nano scale, thereby enabling functions beyond what is otherwise seen in nature. Here, their precisely engineered meta-atoms made out of gold nanorods act like amplifiers of light-matter interactions by tapping into the plasmonic excitations resulting from the collective oscillations of free electrons in metals. “In our analogy, these enhanced interactions make the whispered molecule melodies more audible,” says John-Herpin.

AI is a powerful tool that can be fed with more data than humans can handle in the same amount of time and that can quickly develop the ability to recognize complex patterns from the data. John-Herpin explains, “AI can be imagined as a complete beginner musician who listens to the different amplified melodies and develops a perfect ear after just a few minutes and can tell the melodies apart, even when they are played together – like in an orchestra featuring many instruments simultaneously.” 

The first biosensor of its kind

When the scientists’ infrared metasurfaces are augmented with AI, the new sensor can be used to analyze biological assays featuring multiple analytes simultaneously from the major biomolecule classes and resolving their dynamic interactions. 

“We looked in particular at lipid vesicle-based nanoparticles and monitored their breakage through the insertion of a toxin peptide and the subsequent release of vesicle cargos of nucleotides and carbohydrates, as well as the formation of supported lipid bilayer patches on the metasurface,” says Altug.

This pioneering AI-powered, metasurface-based biosensor will open up exciting perspectives for studying and unraveling inherently complex biological processes, such as intercellular communication via exosomesand the interaction of nucleic acids and carbohydrates with proteins in gene regulation and neurodegeneration. 

“We imagine that our technology will have applications in the fields of biology, bioanalytics and pharmacology – from fundamental research and disease diagnostics to drug development,” says Altug. 

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Infrared Metasurface Augmented by Deep Learning for Monitoring Dynamics between All Major Classes of Biomolecules by Aurelian John‐Herpin, Deepthy Kavungal. Lea von Mücke, Hatice Altug. Advanced Materials Volume 33, Issue 14 April 8, 2021 2006054 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202006054 First published: 22 February 2021

This paper is open access.

Detecting COVID-19 in under five minutes with paper-based sensor made of graphene

A Dec. 7, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announced a new technology for rapid COVID-19 testing (Note: A link has been removed),

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, testing remains a key strategy for tracking and containing the virus. Bioengineering graduate student, Maha Alafeef, has co-developed a rapid, ultrasensitive test using a paper-based electrochemical sensor that can detect the presence of the virus in less than five minutes.

The team led by professor Dipanjan Pan reported their findings in ACS Nano (“Rapid, Ultrasensitive, and Quantitative Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Using Antisense Oligonucleotides Directed Electrochemical Biosensor Chip”).

“Currently, we are experiencing a once-in-a-century life-changing event,” said Alafeef. “We are responding to this global need from a holistic approach by developing multidisciplinary tools for early detection and diagnosis and treatment for SARS-CoV-2.”

I wonder why they didn’t think to provide a caption for the graphene substrate (the square surface) underlying the gold electrode (the round thing) or provide a caption for the electrode. Maybe they assumed anyone knowledgeable about graphene would be able to identify it?

Caption: COVID-19 electrochemical sensing platform. Credit: University of Illinois

A Dec. 7, 2020 University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert) by Huan Song, which originated the news item, provides more technical detail including a description of the graphene substrate and the gold electrode, which make up the cheaper, faster COVID-19 sensing platform,

There are two broad categories of COVID-19 tests on the market. The first category uses reverse transcriptase real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and nucleic acid hybridization strategies to identify viral RNA. Current FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]-approved diagnostic tests use this technique. Some drawbacks include the amount of time it takes to complete the test, the need for specialized personnel and the availability of equipment and reagents.

The second category of tests focuses on the detection of antibodies. However, there could be a delay of a few days to a few weeks after a person has been exposed to the virus for them to produce detectable antibodies.

In recent years, researchers have had some success with creating point-of-care biosensors using 2D nanomaterials such as graphene to detect diseases. The main advantages of graphene-based biosensors are their sensitivity, low cost of production and rapid detection turnaround. “The discovery of graphene opened up a new era of sensor development due to its properties. Graphene exhibits unique mechanical and electrochemical properties that make it ideal for the development of sensitive electrochemical sensors,” said Alafeef. The team created a graphene-based electrochemical biosensor with an electrical read-out setup to selectively detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material.

There are two components [emphasis mine] to this biosensor: a platform to measure an electrical read-out and probes to detect the presence of viral RNA. To create the platform, researchers first coated filter paper with a layer of graphene nanoplatelets to create a conductive film [emphasis mine]. Then, they placed a gold electrode with a predefined design on top of the graphene [emphasis mine] as a contact pad for electrical readout. Both gold and graphene have high sensitivity and conductivity which makes this platform ultrasensitive to detect changes in electrical signals.

Current RNA-based COVID-19 tests screen for the presence of the N-gene (nucleocapsid phosphoprotein) on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In this research, the team designed antisense oligonucleotide (ASOs) probes to target two regions of the N-gene. Targeting two regions ensures the reliability of the senor in case one region undergoes gene mutation. Furthermore, gold nanoparticles (AuNP) are capped with these single-stranded nucleic acids (ssDNA), which represents an ultra-sensitive sensing probe for the SARS-CoV-2 RNA.

The researchers previously showed the sensitivity of the developed sensing probes in their earlier work published in ACS Nano. The hybridization of the viral RNA with these probes causes a change in the sensor electrical response. The AuNP caps accelerate the electron transfer and when broadcasted over the sensing platform, results in an increase in the output signal and indicates the presence of the virus.

The team tested the performance of this sensor by using COVID-19 positive and negative samples. The sensor showed a significant increase in the voltage of positive samples compared to the negative ones and confirmed the presence of viral genetic material in less than five minutes. Furthermore, the sensor was able to differentiate viral RNA loads in these samples. Viral load is an important quantitative indicator of the progress of infection and a challenge to measure using existing diagnostic methods.

This platform has far-reaching applications due to its portability and low cost. The sensor, when integrated with microcontrollers and LED screens or with a smartphone via Bluetooth or wifi, could be used at the point-of-care in a doctor’s office or even at home. Beyond COVID-19, the research team also foresees the system to be adaptable for the detection of many different diseases.

“The unlimited potential of bioengineering has always sparked my utmost interest with its innovative translational applications,” Alafeef said. “I am happy to see my research project has an impact on solving a real-world problem. Finally, I would like to thank my Ph.D. advisor professor Dipanjan Pan for his endless support, research scientist Dr. Parikshit Moitra, and research assistant Ketan Dighe for their help and contribution toward the success of this study.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rapid, Ultrasensitive, and Quantitative Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Using Antisense Oligonucleotides Directed Electrochemical Biosensor Chip by Maha Alafeef, Ketan Dighe, Parikshit Moitra, and Dipanjan Pan. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 12, 17028–17045 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c06392 Publication Date:October 20, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

I’m not sure where I found this notice but it is most definitely from the American Chemical Society: “This paper is freely accessible, at this time, for unrestricted RESEARCH re-use and analyses in any form or by any means with acknowledgement of the original source. These permissions are granted for the duration of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic.”

Can tattoos warn you of health dangers?

I think I can safely say that Carson J. Bruns, a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, is an electronic tattoo enthusiast. His Sept. 24, 2020 essay on electronic tattoos for The Conversation (also found on Fast Company) outlines a very rosy view of a future where health monitoring is constant and visible on your skin (Note: Links have been removed),

In the sci-fi novel “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson, body art has evolved into “constantly shifting mediatronic tattoos” – in-skin displays powered by nanotech robopigments. In the 25 years since the novel was published, nanotechnology has had time to catch up, and the sci-fi vision of dynamic tattoos is starting to become a reality.

The first examples of color-changing nanotech tattoos have been developed over the past few years, and they’re not just for body art. They have a biomedical purpose. Imagine a tattoo that alerts you to a health problem signaled by a change in your biochemistry, or to radiation exposure that could be dangerous to your health.

You can’t walk into a doctor’s office and get a dynamic tattoo yet, but they are on the way. …

In 2017, researchers tattooed pigskin, which had been removed from the pig, with molecular biosensors that use color to indicate sodium, glucose or pH levels in the skin’s fluids.

In 2019, a team of researchers expanded on that study to include protein sensing and developed smartphone readouts for the tattoos. This year, they also showed that electrolyte levels could be detected with fluorescent tattoo sensors.

In 2018, a team of biologists developed a tattoo made of engineered skin cells that darken when they sense an imbalance of calcium caused by certain cancers. They demonstrated the cancer-detecting tattoo in living mice.

My lab is looking at tech tattoos from a different angle. We are interested in sensing external harms, such as ultraviolet radiation. UV exposure in sunlight and tanning beds is the main risk factor for all types of skin cancer. Nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most common malignancies in the U.S., Australia and Europe.

I served as the first human test subject for these tattoos. I created “solar freckles” on my forearm – invisible spots that turned blue under UV exposure and reminded me when to wear sunscreen. My lab is also working on invisible UV-protective tattoos that would absorb UV light penetrating through the skin, like a long-lasting sunscreen just below the surface. We’re also working on “thermometer” tattoos using temperature-sensitive inks. Ultimately, we believe tattoo inks could be used to prevent and diagnose disease.

Temporary transfer tattoos are also undergoing a high-tech revolution. Wearable electronic tattoos that can sense electrophysiological signals like heart rate and brain activity or monitor hydration and glucose levels from sweat are under development. They can even be used for controlling mobile devices, for example shuffling a music playlist at the touch of a tattoo, or for luminescent body art that lights up the skin.

The advantage of these wearable tattoos is that they can use battery-powered electronics. The disadvantage is that they are much less permanent and comfortable than traditional tattoos. Likewise, electronic devices that go underneath the skin are being developed by scientists, designers and biohackers alike, but they require invasive surgical procedures for implantation.

Tattoos injected into the skin offer the best of both worlds: minimally invasive, yet permanent and comfortable. [emphasis mine] New needle-free tattooing methods that fire microscopic ink droplets into the skin are now in development. Once perfected they will make tattooing quicker and less painful.

The color-changing tattoos in development are also going to open the door to a new kind of dynamic body art. Now that tattoo colors can be changed by an electromagnetic signal, you’ll soon be able to “program” your tattoo’s design, or switch it on and off. You can proudly display your neck tattoo at the motorcycle rally and still have clear skin in the courtroom.

As researchers develop dynamic tattoos, they’ll need to study the safety [emphasis mine] of the high-tech inks. As it is, little is known about the safety of the more than 100 different pigments used in normal tattoo inks [emphasis mine]. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not exercised regulatory authority over tattoo pigments, citing other competing public health priorities and a lack of evidence of safety problems with the pigments. So U.S. manufacturers can put whatever they want in tattoo inks [emphasis mine] and sell them without FDA approval.

A wave of high-tech tattoos is slowly upwelling, and it will probably keep rising for the foreseeable future. When it arrives, you can decide to surf or watch from the beach. If you do climb on board, you’ll be able to check your body temperature or UV exposure by simply glancing at one of your tattoos.

There are definitely some interesting possibilities, artistic, health, and medical, offered by electronic tattoos. As you may have guessed, I’m not quite the enthusiast that Dr. Bruns seems to be but I could be persuaded, assuming there’s evidence to support the claims.

Food sensor made from of silk microneedles looks like velco

These sensors really do look like velcro,

The Velcro-like food sensor, made from an array of silk microneedles, can pierce through plastic packaging to sample food for signs of spoilage and bacterial contamination. Image: Felice Frankel

A September 9, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces some research from the Massachusetts Institute (MIT),

MIT engineers have designed a Velcro-like food sensor, made from an array of silk microneedles, that pierces through plastic packaging to sample food for signs of spoilage and bacterial contamination.

The sensor’s microneedles are molded from a solution of edible proteins found in silk cocoons, and are designed to draw fluid into the back of the sensor, which is printed with two types of specialized ink. One of these “bioinks” changes color when in contact with fluid of a certain pH range, indicating that the food has spoiled; the other turns color when it senses contaminating bacteria such as pathogenic E. coli.

A Sept. 9, 2020 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

The researchers attached the sensor to a fillet of raw fish that they had injected with a solution contaminated with E. coli. After less than a day, they found that the part of the sensor that was printed with bacteria-sensing bioink turned from blue to red — a clear sign that the fish was contaminated. After a few more hours, the pH-sensitive bioink also changed color, signaling that the fish had also spoiled.

The results, published today in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, are a first step toward developing a new colorimetric sensor that can detect signs of food spoilage and contamination.

Such smart food sensors might help head off outbreaks such as the recent salmonella contamination in onions and peaches. They could also prevent consumers from throwing out food that may be past a printed expiration date, but is in fact still consumable.

“There is a lot of food that’s wasted due to lack of proper labeling, and we’re throwing food away without even knowing if it’s spoiled or not,” says Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “People also waste a lot of food after outbreaks, because they’re not sure if the food is actually contaminated or not. A technology like this would give confidence to the end user to not waste food.”

Marelli’s co-authors on the paper are Doyoon Kim, Yunteng Cao, Dhanushkodi Mariappan, Michael S. Bono Jr., and A. John Hart.

Silk and printing

The new food sensor is the product of a collaboration between Marelli, whose lab harnesses the properties of silk to develop new technologies, and Hart, whose group develops new manufacturing processes.

Hart recently developed a high-resolution floxography technique, realizing microscopic patterns that can enable low-cost printed electronics and sensors. Meanwhile, Marelli had developed a silk-based microneedle stamp that penetrates and delivers nutrients to plants. In conversation, the researchers wondered whether their technologies could be paired to produce a printed food sensor that monitors food safety.

“Assessing the health of food by just measuring its surface is often not good enough. At some point, Benedetto mentioned his group’s microneedle work with plants, and we realized that we could combine our expertise to make a more effective sensor,” Hart recalls.

The team looked to create a sensor that could pierce through the surface of many types of food. The design they came up with consisted of an array of microneedles made from silk.

“Silk is completely edible, nontoxic, and can be used as a food ingredient, and it’s mechanically robust enough to penetrate through a large spectrum of tissue types, like meat, peaches, and lettuce,” Marelli says.

A deeper detection

To make the new sensor, Kim first made a solution of silk fibroin, a protein extracted from moth cocoons, and poured the solution into a silicone microneedle mold. After drying, he peeled away the resulting array of microneedles, each measuring about 1.6 millimeters long and 600 microns wide — about one-third the diameter of a spaghetti strand.

The team then developed solutions for two kinds of bioink — color-changing printable polymers that can be mixed with other sensing ingredients. In this case, the researchers mixed into one bioink an antibody that is sensitive to a molecule in E. coli. When the antibody comes in contact with that molecule, it changes shape and physically pushes on the surrounding polymer, which in turn changes the way the bioink absorbs light. In this way, the bioink can change color when it senses contaminating bacteria.

The researchers made a bioink containing antibodies sensitive to E. coli, and a second bioink sensitive to pH levels that are associated with spoilage. They printed the bacteria-sensing bioink on the surface of the microneedle array, in the pattern of the letter “E,” next to which they printed the pH-sensitive bioink, as a “C.” Both letters initially appeared blue in color.

Kim then embedded pores within each microneedle to increase the array’s ability to draw up fluid via capillary action. To test the new sensor, he bought several fillets of raw fish from a local grocery store and injected each fillet with a fluid containing either E. coli, Salmonella, or the fluid without any contaminants. He stuck a sensor into each fillet. Then, he waited.

After about 16 hours, the team observed that the “E” turned from blue to red, only in the fillet contaminated with E. coli, indicating that the sensor accurately detected the bacterial antigens. After several more hours, both the “C” and “E” in all samples turned red, indicating that every fillet had spoiled.

The researchers also found their new sensor indicates contamination and spoilage faster than existing sensors that only detect pathogens on the surface of foods.

“There are many cavities and holes in food where pathogens are embedded, and surface sensors cannot detect these,” Kim says. “So we have to plug in a bit deeper to improve the reliability of the detection. Using this piercing technique, we also don’t have to open a package to inspect food quality.”

The team is looking for ways to speed up the microneedles’ absorption of fluid, as well as the bioinks’ sensing of contaminants. Once the design is optimized, they envision the sensor could be used at various stages along the supply chain, from operators in processing plants, who can use the sensors to monitor products before they are shipped out, to consumers who may choose to apply the sensors on certain foods to make sure they are safe to eat.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A Microneedle Technology for Sampling and Sensing Bacteria in the Food Supply Chain by Doyoon Kim, Yunteng Cao, Dhanushkodi Mariappan, Michael S. Bono Jr., A. John Hart, Benedetto Marelli. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202005370 First published: 09 September 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

You mean Fitbit makes mistakes? More accuracy with ‘drawn-on-skin’ electronics

A July 30, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces news about more accurate health monitoring with electronics applied directly to your skin,

A team of researchers led by Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Houston, has developed a new form of electronics known as “drawn-on-skin electronics,” allowing multifunctional sensors and circuits to be drawn on the skin with an ink pen.

The advance, the researchers report in Nature Communications, allows for the collection of more precise, motion artifact-free health data, solving the long-standing problem of collecting precise biological data through a wearable device when the subject is in motion.

The imprecision may not be important when your FitBit registers 4,000 steps instead of 4,200, but sensors designed to check heart function, temperature and other physical signals must be accurate if they are to be used for diagnostics and treatment.

A July 30, 2020 University of Houston news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeannie Kever, which originated the news item, goes on to explain why you might want to have electronics ‘drawn on your skin’,

The drawn-on-skin electronics are able to seamlessly collect data, regardless of the wearer’s movements.  

They also offer other advantages, including simple fabrication techniques that don’t require dedicated equipment.

“It is applied like you would use a pen to write on a piece of paper,” said Yu. “We prepare several electronic materials and then use pens to dispense them. Coming out, it is liquid. But like ink on paper, it dries very quickly.”

Wearable bioelectronics – in the form of soft, flexible patches attached to the skin – have become an important way to monitor, prevent and treat illness and injury by tracking physiological information from the wearer. But even the most flexible wearables are limited by motion artifacts, or the difficulty that arises in collecting data when the sensor doesn’t move precisely with the skin.

The drawn-on-skin electronics can be customized to collect different types of information, and Yu said it is expected to be especially useful in situations where it’s not possible to access sophisticated equipment, including on a battleground.

The electronics are able to track muscle signals, heart rate, temperature and skin hydration, among other physical data, he said. The researchers also reported that the drawn-on-skin electronics have demonstrated the ability to accelerate healing of wounds.

In addition to Yu, researchers involved in the project include Faheem Ershad, Anish Thukral, Phillip Comeaux, Yuntao Lu, Hyunseok Shim, Kyoseung Sim, Nam-In Kim, Zhoulyu Rao, Ross Guevara, Luis Contreras, Fengjiao Pan, Yongcao Zhang, Ying-Shi Guan, Pinyi Yang, Xu Wang and Peng Wang, all from the University of Houston, and Jiping Yue and Xiaoyang Wu from the University of Chicago.

The drawn-on-skin electronics are actually comprised of three inks, serving as a conductor, semiconductor and dielectric.

“Electronic inks, including conductors, semiconductors, and dielectrics, are drawn on-demand in a freeform manner to develop devices, such as transistors, strain sensors, temperature sensors, heaters, skin hydration sensors, and electrophysiological sensors,” the researchers wrote.

This research is supported by the Office of Naval Research and National Institutes of Health.

Caption: A new form of electronics known as “drawn-on-skin electronics” allows multifunctional sensors and circuits to be drawn on the skin with an ink pen. Credit: University of Houston

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Ultra-conformal drawn-on-skin electronics for multifunctional motion artifact-free sensing and point-of-care treatment by Faheem Ershad, Anish Thukral, Jiping Yue, Phillip Comeaux, Yuntao Lu, Hyunseok Shim, Kyoseung Sim, Nam-In Kim, Zhoulyu Rao, Ross Guevara, Luis Contreras, Fengjiao Pan, Yongcao Zhang, Ying-Shi Guan, Pinyi Yang, Xu Wang, Peng Wang, Xiaoyang Wu & Cunjiang Yu. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3823 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17619-1

This paper is open access.

Flexible graphene-rubber sensor for wearables

Courtesy: University of Waterloo

This waffled, greyish thing may not look like much but scientists are hopeful that it can be useful as a health sensor in athletic shoes and elsewhere. A March 6, 2020 news item on Nanowerk describes the work in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers have utilized 3D printing and nanotechnology to create a durable, flexible sensor for wearable devices to monitor everything from vital signs to athletic performance (ACS Nano, “3D-Printed Ultra-Robust Surface-Doped Porous Silicone Sensors for Wearable Biomonitoring”).

The new technology, developed by engineers at the University of Waterloo [Ontario, Canada], combines silicone rubber with ultra-thin layers of graphene in a material ideal for making wristbands or insoles in running shoes.

A March 6, 2020 University of Waterloo news release, which originated the news item, delves further,

When that rubber material bends or moves, electrical signals are created by the highly conductive, nanoscale graphene embedded within its engineered honeycomb structure.

“Silicone gives us the flexibility and durability required for biomonitoring applications, and the added, embedded graphene makes it an effective sensor,” said Ehsan Toyserkani, research director at the Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing (MSAM) Lab at Waterloo. “It’s all together in a single part.”

Fabricating a silicone rubber structure with such complex internal features is only possible using state-of-the-art 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – equipment and processes.

The rubber-graphene material is extremely flexible and durable in addition to highly conductive.

“It can be used in the harshest environments, in extreme temperatures and humidity,” said Elham Davoodi, an engineering PhD student at Waterloo who led the project. “It could even withstand being washed with your laundry.”

The material and the 3D printing process enable custom-made devices to precisely fit the body shapes of users, while also improving comfort compared to existing wearable devices and reducing manufacturing costs due to simplicity.

Toyserkani, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering, said the rubber-graphene sensor can be paired with electronic components to make wearable devices that record heart and breathing rates, register the forces exerted when athletes run, allow doctors to remotely monitor patients and numerous other potential applications.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of British Columbia collaborated on the project.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

3D-Printed Ultra-Robust Surface-Doped Porous Silicone Sensors for Wearable Biomonitoring by Elham Davoodi, Hossein Montazerian, Reihaneh Haghniaz, Armin Rashidi, Samad Ahadian, Amir Sheikhi, Jun Chen, Ali Khademhosseini, Abbas S. Milani, Mina Hoorfar, Ehsan Toyserkani. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 2, 1520-1532 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.9b06283 Publication Date: January 6, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Neurons and graphene carpets

I don’t entirely grasp the carpet analogy. Actually, I have no why they used a carpet analogy but here’s the June 12, 2018 ScienceDaily news item about the research,

A work led by SISSA [Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati] and published on Nature Nanotechnology reports for the first time experimentally the phenomenon of ion ‘trapping’ by graphene carpets and its effect on the communication between neurons. The researchers have observed an increase in the activity of nerve cells grown on a single layer of graphene. Combining theoretical and experimental approaches they have shown that the phenomenon is due to the ability of the material to ‘trap’ several ions present in the surrounding environment on its surface, modulating its composition. Graphene is the thinnest bi-dimensional material available today, characterised by incredible properties of conductivity, flexibility and transparency. Although there are great expectations for its applications in the biomedical field, only very few works have analysed its interactions with neuronal tissue.

A June 12, 2018 SISSA press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

A study conducted by SISSA – Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, in association with the University of Antwerp (Belgium), the University of Trieste and the Institute of Science and Technology of Barcelona (Spain), has analysed the behaviour of neurons grown on a single layer of graphene, observing a strengthening in their activity. Through theoretical and experimental approaches the researchers have shown that such behaviour is due to reduced ion mobility, in particular of potassium, to the neuron-graphene interface. This phenomenon is commonly called ‘ion trapping’, already known at theoretical level, but observed experimentally for the first time only now. “It is as if graphene behaves as an ultra-thin magnet on whose surface some of the potassium ions present in the extra cellular solution between the cells and the graphene remain trapped. It is this small variation that determines the increase in neuronal excitability” comments Denis Scaini, researcher at SISSA who has led the research alongside Laura Ballerini.

The study has also shown that this strengthening occurs when the graphene itself is supported by an insulator, like glass, or suspended in solution, while it disappears when lying on a conductor. “Graphene is a highly conductive material which could potentially be used to coat any surface. Understanding how its behaviour varies according to the substratum on which it is laid is essential for its future applications, above all in the neurological field” continues Scaini, “considering the unique properties of graphene it is natural to think for example about the development of innovative electrodes of cerebral stimulation or visual devices”.

It is a study with a double outcome. Laura Ballerini comments as follows: “This ‘ion trap’ effect was described only in theory. Studying the impact of the ‘technology of materials’ on biological systems, we have documented a mechanism to regulate membrane excitability, but at the same time we have also experimentally described a property of the material through the biology of neurons.”

Dexter Johnson in a June 13, 2018 posting, on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website), provides more context for the work (Note: Links have been removed),

While graphene has been tapped to deliver on everything from electronics to optoelectronics, it’s a bit harder to picture how it may offer a key tool for addressing neurological damage and disorders. But that’s exactly what researchers have been looking at lately because of the wonder material’s conductivity and transparency.

In the most recent development, a team from Europe has offered a deeper understanding of how graphene can be combined with neurological tissue and, in so doing, may have not only given us an additional tool for neurological medicine, but also provided a tool for gaining insights into other biological processes.

“The results demonstrate that, depending on how the interface with [single-layer graphene] is engineered, the material may tune neuronal activities by altering the ion mobility, in particular potassium, at the cell/substrate interface,” said Laura Ballerini, a researcher in neurons and nanomaterials at SISSA.

Ballerini provided some context for this most recent development by explaining that graphene-based nanomaterials have come to represent potential tools in neurology and neurosurgery.

“These materials are increasingly engineered as components of a variety of applications such as biosensors, interfaces, or drug-delivery platforms,” said Ballerini. “In particular, in neural electrode or interfaces, a precise requirement is the stable device/neuronal electrical coupling, which requires governing the interactions between the electrode surface and the cell membrane.”

This neuro-electrode hybrid is at the core of numerous studies, she explained, and graphene, thanks to its electrical properties, transparency, and flexibility represents an ideal material candidate.

In all of this work, the real challenge has been to investigate the ability of a single atomic layer to tune neuronal excitability and to demonstrate unequivocally that graphene selectively modifies membrane-associated neuronal functions.

I encourage you to read Dexter’s posting as it clarifies the work described in the SISSA press release for those of us (me) who may fail to grasp the implications.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Single-layer graphene modulates neuronal communication and augments membrane ion currents by Niccolò Paolo Pampaloni, Martin Lottner, Michele Giugliano, Alessia Matruglio, Francesco D’Amico, Maurizio Prato, Josè Antonio Garrido, Laura Ballerini, & Denis Scaini. Nature Nanotechnology (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-018-0163-6 Published online June 13, 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

All this brings to mind a prediction made about the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project shortly after the European Commission announced in January 2013 that each project had won funding of 1B Euros to be paid out over a period of 10 years. The prediction was that scientists would work on graphene/human brain research.

Create gold nanoparticles and nanowires with water droplets.

For some reason it took a lot longer than usual to find this research paper despite having the journal (Nature Communications), the title (Spontaneous formation …), and the authors’ names. Thankfully, success was wrested from the jaws of defeat (I don’t care if that is trite; it’s how I felt) and links, etc. follow at the end as usual.

An April 19, 2018 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) spins fascinating tale,

An experiment that, by design, was not supposed to turn up anything of note instead produced a “bewildering” surprise, according to the Stanford scientists who made the discovery: a new way of creating gold nanoparticles and nanowires using water droplets.

The technique, detailed April 19 [2018] in the journal Nature Communications, is the latest discovery in the new field of on-droplet chemistry and could lead to more environmentally friendly ways to produce nanoparticles of gold and other metals, said study leader Richard Zare, a chemist in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a co-founder of Stanford Bio-X.

“Being able to do reactions in water means you don’t have to worry about contamination. It’s green chemistry,” said Zare, who is the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford.

Noble metal

Gold is known as a noble metal because it is relatively unreactive. Unlike base metals such as nickel and copper, gold is resistant to corrosion and oxidation, which is one reason it is such a popular metal for jewelry.

Around the mid-1980s, however, scientists discovered that gold’s chemical aloofness only manifests at large, or macroscopic, scales. At the nanometer scale, gold particles are very chemically reactive and make excellent catalysts. Today, gold nanostructures have found a role in a wide variety of applications, including bio-imaging, drug delivery, toxic gas detection and biosensors.

Until now, however, the only reliable way to make gold nanoparticles was to combine the gold precursor chloroauric acid with a reducing agent such as sodium borohydride.

The reaction transfers electrons from the reducing agent to the chloroauric acid, liberating gold atoms in the process. Depending on how the gold atoms then clump together, they can form nano-size beads, wires, rods, prisms and more.

A spritz of gold

Recently, Zare and his colleagues wondered whether this gold-producing reaction would proceed any differently with tiny, micron-size droplets of chloroauric acid and sodium borohydide. How large is a microdroplet? “It is like squeezing a perfume bottle and out spritzes a mist of microdroplets,” Zare said.

From previous experiments, the scientists knew that some chemical reactions proceed much faster in microdroplets than in larger solution volumes.

Indeed, the team observed that gold nanoparticle grew over 100,000 times faster in microdroplets. However, the most striking observation came while running a control experiment in which they replaced the reducing agent – which ordinarily releases the gold particles – with microdroplets of water.

“Much to our bewilderment, we found that gold nanostructures could be made without any added reducing agents,” said study first author Jae Kyoo Lee, a research associate.

Viewed under an electron microscope, the gold nanoparticles and nanowires appear fused together like berry clusters on a branch.

The surprise finding means that pure water microdroplets can serve as microreactors for the production of gold nanostructures. “This is yet more evidence that reactions in water droplets can be fundamentally different from those in bulk water,” said study coauthor Devleena Samanta, a former graduate student in Zare’s lab and co-author on the paper.

If the process can be scaled up, it could eliminate the need for potentially toxic reducing agents that have harmful health side effects or that can pollute waterways, Zare said.

It’s still unclear why water microdroplets are able to replace a reducing agent in this reaction. One possibility is that transforming the water into microdroplets greatly increases its surface area, creating the opportunity for a strong electric field to form at the air-water interface, which may promote the formation of gold nanoparticles and nanowires.

“The surface area atop a one-liter beaker of water is less than one square meter. But if you turn the water in that beaker into microdroplets, you will get about 3,000 square meters of surface area – about the size of half a football field,” Zare said.

The team is exploring ways to utilize the nanostructures for various catalytic and biomedical applications and to refine their technique to create gold films.

“We observed a network of nanowires that may allow the formation of a thin layer of nanowires,” Samanta said.

Here’s a link and a citation for the paper,

Spontaneous formation of gold nanostructures in aqueous microdroplets by Jae Kyoo Lee, Devleena Samanta, Hong Gil Nam, & Richard N. Zare. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1562 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04023-z Published online: 19 April 2018

Not unsurprisingly given Zare’s history as recounted in the news release, this paper is open access.

Using melanin in bioelectronic devices

Brazilian researchers are working with melanin to make biosensors and other bioelectronic devices according to a Dec. 20, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Bioelectronics, sometimes called the next medical frontier, is a research field that combines electronics and biology to develop miniaturized implantable devices capable of altering and controlling electrical signals in the human body. Large corporations are increasingly interested: a joint venture in the field has recently been announced by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

One of the challenges that scientists face in developing bioelectronic devices is identifying and finding ways to use materials that conduct not only electrons but also ions, as most communication and other processes in the human organism use ionic biosignals (e.g., neurotransmitters). In addition, the materials must be biocompatible.

Resolving this challenge is one of the motivations for researchers at São Paulo State University’s School of Sciences (FC-UNESP) at Bauru in Brazil. They have succeeded in developing a novel route to more rapidly synthesize and to enable the use of melanin, a polymeric compound that pigments the skin, eyes and hair of mammals and is considered one of the most promising materials for use in miniaturized implantable devices such as biosensors.

A Dec. 14, 2016 FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) press release, which originated the news item, further describes both the research and a recent meeting where the research was shared (Note: A link has been removed),

Some of the group’s research findings were presented at FAPESP Week Montevideo during a round-table session on materials science and engineering.

The symposium was organized by the Montevideo Group Association of Universities (AUGM), Uruguay’s University of the Republic (UdelaR) and FAPESP and took place on November 17-18 at UdelaR’s campus in Montevideo. Its purpose was to strengthen existing collaborations and establish new partnerships among South American scientists in a range of knowledge areas. Researchers and leaders of institutions in Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay attended the meeting.

“All the materials that have been tested to date for applications in bioelectronics are entirely synthetic,” said Carlos Frederico de Oliveira Graeff, a professor at UNESP Bauru and principal investigator for the project, in an interview given to Agência FAPESP.

“One of the great advantages of melanin is that it’s a totally natural compound and biocompatible with the human body: hence its potential use in electronic devices that interface with brain neurons, for example.”

Application challenges

According to Graeff, the challenges of using melanin as a material for the development of bioelectronic devices include the fact that like other carbon-based materials, such as graphene, melanin is not easily dispersible in an aqueous medium, a characteristic that hinders its application in thin-film production.

Furthermore, the conventional process for synthesizing melanin is complex: several steps are hard to control, it can last up to 56 days, and it can result in disorderly structures.

In a series of studies performed in recent years at the Center for Research and Development of Functional Materials (CDFM), where Graeff is a leading researcher and which is one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) funded by FAPESP, he and his collaborators managed to obtain biosynthetic melanin with good dispersion in water and a strong resemblance to natural melanin using a novel synthesis route.

The process developed by the group at CDMF takes only a few hours and is based on changes in parameters such as temperature and the application of oxygen pressure to promote oxidation of the material.

By applying oxygen pressure, the researchers were able to increase the density of carboxyl groups, which are organic functional groups consisting of a carbon atom double bonded to an oxygen atom and single bonded to a hydroxyl group (oxygen + hydrogen). This enhances solubility and facilitates the suspension of biosynthetic melanin in water.

“The production of thin films of melanin with high homogeneity and quality is made far easier by these characteristics,” Graeff said.

By increasing the density of carboxyl groups, the researchers were also able to make biosynthetic melanin more similar to the biological compound.

In living organisms, an enzyme that participates in the synthesis of melanin facilitates the production of carboxylic acids. The new melanin synthesis route enabled the researchers to mimic the role of this enzyme chemically while increasing carboxyl group density.

“We’ve succeeded in obtaining a material that’s very close to biological melanin by chemical synthesis and in producing high-quality film for use in bioelectronic devices,” Graeff said.

Through collaboration with colleagues at research institutions in Canada [emphasis mine], the Brazilian researchers have begun using the material in a series of applications, including electrical contacts, pH sensors and photovoltaic cells.

More recently, they have embarked on an attempt to develop a transistor, a semiconductor device used to amplify or switch electronic signals and electrical power.

“Above all, we aim to produce transistors precisely in order to enhance this coupling of electronics with biological systems,” Graeff said.

I’m glad to have gotten some information about the work in South America. It’s one of FrogHeart’s shortcomings that I have so little about the research in that area of the world. I believe this is largely due to my lack of Spanish language skills. Perhaps one day there’ll be a universal translator that works well. In the meantime, it was a surprise to see Canada mentioned in this piece. I wonder which Canadian research institutions are involved with this research in South America.