Concussions can happen at any time to athletes, seniors, crash victims — anyone. Some athletes have medical staff on standby to assess their condition, but if you don’t, how do you know if you have a concussion? How long will it take to get tested for a concussion? How long will it take to get the test results? What if the answer was, literally, right at hand?
A research project at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering is working towards putting that knowledge into the hands of, well, anyone.
Dr. Amir Sanati-Nezhad is leading the project developing a handheld device to determine if someone has a brain injury. This technology is part of the bio-medical engineering field that is producing point-of-care testing (POCT) devices.
“The device can be eventually used for the school and also for any other sport site to really have early detection,” said Dr. Sanati-Nezhad.
POCT technology basically shrinks a lab down to a small chip that fits in a portable, hand held device. This is called a “lab on a chip.”
A pin prick of blood is measured by the lab on a chip, letting you know in about 20 minutes if you have a brain injury and the level of severity.
Dr. Sanati-Nezhad explains the technology in his device.
“It miniaturizes all the processes of detection, from the separation of the serum, or plasma, from the whole blood. And then the extraction of the protein and detection of the protein and analyzing the data and sending it to whatever interface you have. Everything will be miniaturized in a very small device which can easily be handheld.”
The devices look at multiple biomarkers in bodily fluids or biofluidics. They are a measurable sign of a disease and its severity in the body.
“The beauty of biofluidics is that not only can you detect a concussion but also monitor the recovery as well,” explains Sanati-Nezhad. “So, if you have a concussion, whether you are recovered or not, you can monitor the concentration of this protein and if the levels are dropping and returning to a normal concentration, then you are fully recovered.”
In 2018, researchers at the University of Glasgow unveiled a device, they claimed, that could scan for biomarkers to quickly and easily detect some diseases and illnesses. The researchers said the “multicoder” could detect and measure heart attacks and prostate cancer simultaneously while using the device.
POCT devices should be easy to use, self-contained, portable, sturdy, low cost, and easy to interpret. These factors make POCT devices popular in remote areas and in health care settings,
As the technology for testing fluids changes rapidly, the next generation of devices could look significantly different. Researchers are exploring what other bodily fluids could be tested.
Dr. Sanati-Nezhad says there is a lot of interest in saliva samples and what they could reveal about a patient’s health. There is research looking into salivary biomarkers that could indicate cancer or infectious diseases. But Dr. Sanati-Nezhad cautions that saliva could easily be contaminated if someone has a cold or allergies which complicate reliable sensing in saliva.
Tear samples are being tested for ocular surface diseases. Tears are accessible and gathering them is much less invasive.
POCT devices are not limited to measuring a fluid. Other electronics can be altered to become a POCT device, such as a smartphone. The built-in cameras are a potential tool for melanoma detection. Although, adapting to all the brands is difficult, and different camera resolutions could affect the image reading.
Paper-based devices are already widely used for HIV, hepatitis C, pregnancy, and tuberculosis. A strip of paper wicks urine or blood along the paper where the sample reacts with a colour change. However, in the future, POCT devices could perform more complex tasks, such as repeating a test for accuracy or measuring levels of a specific molecule.
Wearable or implanted devices such as contact lenses, tattoos, or microneedles could help with continuous glucose measuring. Our breath can be tested as well. Volatolomics measures the organic compounds in breath, potentially helping with asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory infectious diseases.
Whatever the research hands us in the future, Dr. Sanati-Nezhad hopes we are able to accurately interpret the large amount of data being collected and then use it effectively using new artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to halt or limit the progression of a disease.