For years, diabetics have been using a tiny drop of blood from a finger prick to accurately detect blood sugar glucose levels. Now a team of researchers at West Virginia University is working to develop a similar device to diagnose two very different types of problems: traumatic brain injury and heavy metals in water supplies.

Nianqiang Wu, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Yuxin Liu, an assistant professor in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, have teamed up to create the strips. Both have extensive experience in the development of nano-scale devices with applications in healthcare and environmental monitoring.

A serious public health problem

In 2010 in the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Controls estimates that more than 2.5 million traumatic brain injuries occurred either as an isolated injury or along with other injuries. Some signs or symptoms may appear immediately after the traumatic event, while others may appear days or weeks later. Mild traumatic brain injury may cause temporary dysfunction of brain cells. More serious traumatic brain injury can result in bruising, torn tissues, bleeding and other physical damage to the brain that can result in long-term complications or death. In even the mildest of cases, prompt attention and accurate diagnosis are key to ensuring brain health.

Brain imaging using computerized tomography scans and magnetic resonance imaging are commonly used to diagnose the most severe cases. Traumatic brain injury cases are also diagnosed using a blood sample, which is drawn in a laboratory environment by a healthcare professional and then sent for processing. Total time can take up to half a day. To date, no in vitro diagnostic tool is commercially available to rapidly identify and differentiate between mild and severe cases of traumatic brain injury.

“There is a critical need to develop a point of care device to rapidly determine if a brain injury has happened and its severity,” Wu said.

With funding from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health, the team from WVU is working to create such a device that can be easily deployed in a number of settings.

“We are working to create a type of test strip that will be able to test for TBI biomarkers or proteins in the blood,” Wu said. “Using just a drop of blood from a finger prick, the strip could be administered by virtually anyone at the time of injury and dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to begin treatment.”

Wu noted that the strip could have applications in areas ranging from athletics to the military, and could be especially useful in the treatment of young children.

“Children are not little adults,” Wu said. “They may lack the ability to verbalize their symptoms. The use of test strips could avoid such an unchecked risk.”

Long-term exposure to highly toxic metals

Heavy metals have entered the water supply from industrial and consumer wastes, acid rain, power plants and vehicle emissions. Long-term exposure can have cancer-causing effects, as well as create central and peripheral nervous system and circulatory damage. Damage to plants, animals and the overall environmental is also a major concern.

“There is a strong incentive to develop convenient, cost-effective and field-deployable sensors for monitoring heavy metals in the environment,” Wu said.

In this case, the test strip will be used to detect three commonly found contaminants: mercury, lead and silver. “While the premise of this strip is similar to the one we are developing for TBI, it will function on a different operating principle,” Wu said. “In this case, a water sample will be added to the strip. The strip will utilize three fluorescent sensors that will detect the level of the metal present.”

One interesting use for this type of strip, Wu said, would be in dental applications.

“Amalgam fillings, which are composed of mercury and silver, have been widely used for decades,” he said. “While there has been a steady decline in their use in developed countries, their use continues to rise worldwide. In this instance, a drop of saliva could be placed on a test strip to determine the amount of these metals that are leaking into a person’s mouth.”

The research is being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

In both cases, the team from WVU expects it to take about three years before they will have testable prototypes and if all goes well, to have both products to market in the near future.



CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

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