Sniffing out diseases with a bio-electronic nose

Southampton 20 September 2006A new European Union-funded project aims to develop an artificial, "bio-electronic" nose which could help doctors to diagnose a range of diseases. State-of-the-art nose technology is currently based on electrical conducting polymers - materials which are similar to plastics but can conduct electricity. These materials can be primed to absorb and respond to different odour molecules, and a typical artificial nose will feature an array of polymer sensors, each of which is responsive to a particular substance. However, odours affect many of the sensors in different ways, and the resulting pattern of responses needs to be analysed. Furthermore, their sensitivity is still relatively low.


The Receptronics project has picked up the scent from a different angle. "We plan to replicate what goes on in biology", Professor Hywel Morgan of the University of Southampton explained. In the nose are cells with molecules embedded in the cell membrane. When these bind with an odour molecule, a hole opens in the molecule and an electrical current flows, creating a stimulus, which is transmitted to the brain.

In the Receptronics project, the researchers will use molecular engineering techniques to create receptors which are sensitive to different substances, based on designs found in animal noses. These receptors will be embedded in membranes in an array, with each receptor linked to an electronic interface which can detect electronic signals transmitted when the receptor binds with its target molecule. The system will be mounted on a credit-card sized chip.

According to Professor Morgan, the new nose will have a sensitivity 100 to 1000 times greater than today's electronic noses. The three-year project will focus on designing a system which could be used in medicine to detect hormones, and so help doctors to diagnose a range of diseases. However, a highly sensitive bio-electronic nose could have applications in a range of areas, such as detecting explosives and determining the freshness of food.

"Most odours are still mapped by humans", stated Professor Morgan. "If we can find a way to replace this function with technology, we could use odour detection in many new areas."

The Receptronics project - the full project's name is Label Free Biomolecular Detectors: at the Convergence of Bioengineered Receptors and Microelectronics - links researchers in Italy, the United Kingdom, France and Greece and has sniffed out 1,99 million euro in funding under the Sixth Framework Programme.

More information is available in the Receptronics ffact sheet. Read also the news on the related SPOT-NOSED project in the VMW June 2006 article Smell of success for nanobiosensors.

Leslie Versweyveld

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