US engineers have developed a fingernail-sized biosensor that could alert doctors when serious brain injury occurs during heart surgery.

The researchers at John Hopkins University say the device could help doctors devise new ways to minimise brain damage or begin treatment more quickly.

The sensor uses a layer of antibodies to detect when the body produces a protein associated with brain injuries commonly caused by heart surgery such as strokes.

In particular, these can cause developmental problems in child patients but aren’t usually detected until after the surgery is complete, sometimes years later.

‘If we can be alerted when the injury is occurring then we should be able to develop better therapies,’ said Allen Everett, the John Hopkins cardiologist who led the medical team involved in the research.

‘We could improve our control of blood pressure or redesign our cardiopulmonary bypass machines. We could learn how to optimise cooling and rewarming procedures and have a benchmark for developing and testing new protective medications.’

The engineers on the project, led by materials scientist Howard Katz, made use of organic thin-film transistors, which have also been used in sensors that can detect gases and chemicals associated with explosives.

These transistors are relatively low cost, low power consumption, have high biocompatibility and can detect a variety of biomolecules in real time, and can also accommodate a wide variety of other useful electronic materials in a single system.

The sensor comprised a small square covered in a layer of antibodies that attract the target protein known as GFAP. When the protein molecules are trapped by the antibodies it alters the amount of electrical current that passes through the device.

‘This sensor proved to be extremely sensitive,’ said Katz. ‘It recognized GFAP even when there were many other protein molecules nearby. As far as we’ve been able to determine, this is the most sensitive protein detector based on organic thin film transistors.’

The researchers have proven the device works in a lab and published their work in the journal Chemical Science. They are now looking for industrial collaborators with whom to conduct further R&D of the device, hoping it could be put into clinical use within five years.

Everett said the biosensor could eventually be used outside of the operating room to quickly detect brain injuries among athletes and accident victims.

‘It could evolve into a point-of-care or point-of-injury device. It might also be very useful in hospital emergency departments to screen patients for brain injuries.”

Source: The Engineer

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