Digital Healthcare

How printable testing kits could turn healthcare upside-down

Biosensors like e-skin could give us cheap, fast and convenient health data, say researchers at an international biosensing conference

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You put a droplet of saliva on a credit card-sized testing kit and wait a few seconds. Your mobile phone lights up and displays your medical results, which it also sends to the online diagnosis database. Your diagnosis app opens and shows you a list of treatment options with detailed information about the medication and side effects. You order the pills through the app, opting to have them delivered to your office the same day.

Is this the stuff of science fiction? Perhaps not, according to researchers meeting this week at Elsevier’s 4th International Conference on Bio-Sensing Technology (#bite2015) in Lisbon, Portugal.

Anthony Turner, PhD, DSc“If you’re a runner, you might already use mobile technologies to monitor your pulse, the steps you’ve taken, your heart rate, blood pressure, distance and speed,” said Prof. Anthony Turner, Head of the Biosensors & Bioelectronics Centre at Linköping University in Sweden, who is presenting a new diagnostic device at the conference. “Everyone recognizes the huge potential of this technology, but the measurements we’re currently making are the easy ones. What we really want to know about is the body’s chemistry – its function, malfunction and how the environment is impacting that.”

Biosensors can detect and analyze data to give patients information on their blood sugar, lactate, stress and hormone levels, and even test whether they are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This detection technology is a step forward in personal medicine, giving patients real-time information about how their bodies are functioning and suggesting the most suitable treatments.

Printing technology makes cheap, portable diagnostic instruments

Dr. Turner and his collaborators at Acreo Swedish ICT have developed an instrument that looks like a business card and can analyze blood and saliva samples. It is simple to use: you switch it on by pressing a button, then apply your sample to a circle in the bottom right corner and wait for a digital reading to be displayed and even sent to your mobile phone.

Demo printed diagnostic instruments that look like business cards, made by Dr. Turner and Acreo Swedish ICT.The whole instrument is printed on the card using a screen-printing technique. It could be used to monitor diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease – even to detect cancer. This, says Dr. Turner, could turn a 2,500-year-old paradigm on its head and put the power in the patient’s: hands.

We’re on the cusp of an entirely new era – not just for bio-sensing, but for measurements in healthcare and diagnostics generally. Until now, we have been used to going to a doctor, who endows us with some wisdom and retains information about us, and then waiting to see if we get better. Modern sensors and telecommunications are rebalancing this power; in the future, patients could have the information, while physicians provide a service.

The printed instruments are the result of a collaboration between the Biosensors and Bioelectronics Centre at Linköping University and Acreo Swedish ICT, and the team is now looking for corporate partners to work with to mass-produce them. At just €5 each – a cost that’s expected to fall to €0.50 – the paper diagnostic instruments offer an inexpensive way to analyze samples.

“When I started doing electrochemistry 30 years ago, an instrument like this would have been the size of a filing cabinet, and would have cost me €10,000,” said Dr. Turner. “We’ve now got the technology figured out; we had to combine the area of printed electronics and printed biosensors. It’s the first time anyone has printed an entire instrument.”

This means they have the potential to provide patients and doctors in developing countries with accessible, affordable medical tests. For example, the printed card could be made part of the packaging of antibiotics, helping determine which antibiotic would be best to treat a patient’s infection.

Flexible electronics make wearable diagnostic systems

Such printable devices could also be worn like plasters or contact lenses, transmitting information to mobile phones. Similarly, e-skin devices are also designed to be wearable and portable, and to transmit data about how a patient’s body is functioning.

Ting Zhang, PhD

Prof. Ting Zhang of the Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is presenting a new kind of e-skin at the conference. E-skin is developed based on flexible electronic technology and nanotechnology; because of its unique ability to detect tiny changes in pressure, e-skin can be used to monitor blood pressure, heart rate and wrist pulse.

Dr. Zhang and his team have developed two key aspects of the technology – making the sensor element more sensitive and making the material more flexible – bringing wearable diagnostic systems a step closer. They have used carbon nanotubes and sheets of graphene only a few atoms thick to construct ultra-sensitive, transparent and flexible e-skin.

“We’re very excited to present our new technology,” said Dr. Zhang. “We’ve shown that the e-skin can be used to monitor many different human physiological signals. We believe our new material can give real-time diagnosis of diseases and provide an instant health assessment while a patient is wearing it.”

Putting the patient at the center of future healthcare

“We seem to be experiencing the perfect storm,” says Dr. Turner. With new sensing technology combined with advances in microelectronics, the power of telecommunications and mobility, and the big data revolution, there are vast amounts of data being generated.

Using the sort of printing technology we work with, you could produce a stick-on patch that communicates with your mobile phone, or a diagnostic instrument that’s part of the packaging of your pills. Looking further ahead, there’s even potential for developing technology that would enable on-demand printing of diagnostic instruments.

Let’s say you suddenly have a rash; today you might go to the internet to look up your symptoms, then visit a doctor. In the future, you could take this a step further: after looking it up, you could print your own diagnostic instrument, do the test, transmit the results and receive a diagnosis based on the chemical analysis.

Dr. Turner says this has the potential to change the whole way we deliver healthcare:

This really puts the patient at the center, rather than healthcare revolving around the institution. Advances like this mean you might not have to visit a doctor at all; the service could be delivered when and where you want it. 

This change would have a profound effect on institutions, governments, hospitals and companies, completely disrupting the status quo. With so much vested interest, will healthcare really change that much?

“We see revolutions in many different areas,” Dr. Turner said. “Look at publishing and music, for example. We now have eBooks to read on iPads and Kindles, and we can listen to music on demand on Spotify: these things have changed the paradigm. But it doesn’t always go that way, sometimes things don’t change so dramatically. We still have physical meetings, in addition to video conferences, and in healthcare, there will still be a need for a comforting human touch.”

Bio-Sensing conference and virtual special issue

Bio-sensing technologies are gaining momentum in areas like healthcare, the environment and security. The 4th International Conference on Bio-Sensing Technology brings together leaders from industry and academia to present research results, explore collaborations and come up with ideas, with the aim of developing projects and exploiting new technology for bio-sensing applications.

A virtual special issue dedicated to the research presented at this conference will be published in the journals Biosensors & Bioelectronics and Sensing and Bio-Sensing Research later in the year. For more information, visit the conference website: biosensingconference.com.

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Elsevier Connect Contributor

Lucy Goodchild van HiltenAfter a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. 

She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.

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