Australian scientists have designed tiny optical sensors that they say open the door to developing a wearable device that enables doctors to medically diagnose a person’s health in real time.
Associate professor Dr Antonio Tricoli from the Australian National University (ANU) said the sensors, which are 50 times thinner than a human hair, promised to one day help doctors detect diseases like diabetes earlier than is possible today while better managing other chronic illnesses.
“These ultra-small sensors could be integrated into a watch to literally provide a window on our health,” said Dr Tricoli, leader of the Nanotechnology Research Laboratory at the ANU Research School of Engineering.
“This exciting invention shows that we are on the cusp of designing the next generation of wearable devices that will help people to say well for longer and lead better lives.”
Tricoli said the sensors could measure very small concentrations of gases coming through a person’s skin and breath called metabolites. This would enable doctors to keep track of an individual’s health in real time.
“You could simply use a pulse of light to track these biomarkers of disease – there’d be no need for batteries, wires or large and expensive lab equipment. A wearable medical diagnostic device using optical sensors may one day eliminate the need for blood test and many other invasive procedures.”
ANU PhD student, Zelio Fusco, said the sensors had advantages over other types being developed for wearable medical devices because they could detect metabolites in much smaller concentrations and operate at room temperature. He said they can be integrated into different technologies for applications ranging from medical diagnosis, farming and space exploration.
“Our sensors could be developed to detect whether a plant has a particular disease or a fruit is ripe, for example.
The sensors combine small gold nanostructures with semiconductors in a way that has created unique properties to enable the detection of gas molecules at very low concentrations. ANU said they could be potentially fitted to micro-satellites or tiny spacecraft that could help in the hunt for life on distance planets by telling us if there are trace organic molecules of living organisms on distant planets.
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