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ANU designs versatile optical sensors that will allow earlier disease-detection in real time

An announcement made by the Australian National University (ANU) highlighted on the tiny optical sensors that its scientists are working on. 50 times thinner than human hair, these sensors can change the way wearable devices for medical diagnosis is made. This will allow doctors to detect diseases earlier than can be done at present. There will be no need for batteries, wires or large and expensive lab equipment as it uses pulse of light to track biomarkers of disease.

Scientists from the ANU have designed tiny optical sensors that may pave the way for the development of a wearable device that allows doctors to medically diagnose the health of people in real time.

Leader of the Nanotechnology Research Laboratory at the ANU Research School of Engineering Associate Professor Dr Antonio Tricoli said that the sensors are guaranteed to help doctors detect diseases such as diabetes much earlier than possible at present, and better manage chronic diseases someday. The sensors are 50 times thinner than a human hair.

"These ultra-small sensors could be integrated into a watch to literally provide a window on our health," said Dr Tricoli.

He added, "This exciting invention shows that we are on the cusp of designing the next generation of wearable devices that will help people to stay well for longer and lead better lives."

Dr Tricoli explained that the sensors could measure very small concentrations of gases coming through your skin and breath called metabolites, allowing doctors to keep track of people'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," he said.

He furthered, “A wearable medical diagnostic device using our optical sensors may one day eliminate the need for blood tests and many other invasive procedures.”

Mr Zelio Fusco is a PhD scholar in Dr Tricoli's lab. He said that the advantage of these new sensors over other types being developed for wearable medical devices is its ability to detect metabolites in much smaller concentrations. Moreover, it can operate at room temperature.

"The beauty of our sensors is that they are super versatile and can be integrated into different technologies for applications ranging from medical diagnosis, farming and space exploration," added Mr Fusco.

He furthered, "Our sensors could be developed to detect whether a plant has a particular disease or a fruit is ripe, for example."

Dr Mohsen Rahmani is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Fellow at the Nonlinear Physics Centre the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering.  He is a co-researcher in the project.

Dr Mohsen Rahmani said the sensors combined very small gold nanostructures with semiconductors in a way that created unique properties to enable the detection of gas molecules at very low concentrations.

"As the sensors are ultra-small and ultra-light, they could potentially be fitted to micro-satellites or tiny spacecraft that could help in the hunt for life on distant planets, by telling us if there are trace organic molecules of living organisms on distant planets," explained Dr Rahmani.

The Queensland University of Technology and the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden supported ANU to conduct this research.

The research is published in Advanced Materials.

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