Medical Sensors Design Conference: Can portable sensors carry us towards a healthier planet?

Portable sensors can provide a wealth of medical data.

When it comes to diagnostics, a molecular test is best. Whether you are trying to detect pathogens that attack plants or humans, interrogating the genome and proteome to analyze nucleic acids, proteins and other molecular markers is key to providing reliable results.

But what good is the technology if it is not accessible when and where you need it? The miniaturization of molecular testing into portable devices has helped bring diagnostics from the lab into the clinic and, to a limited extent, into the field. But are these devices enough to handle point-of-care qualitative and quantitative testing needs, particularly in rugged field and low/middle income countries?

Here are the scary stats: today, nearly 2 billion people are undernourished, and 2 billion more will need to be fed over the next 30 years. What’s more, global agriculture must contend with contracting farmable land, worsening climate change and increasingly resistant crop diseases.

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But, we can empower global agriculture toward a more sustainable planet, if the right molecular diagnostics platform that detects and quantifies crop traits, pathogens and resistance, can be brought where it is needed - to the field.

The same platform could also enhance the health of people across the planet. Take TB, for example. One of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, millions of people continue to fall sick with TB each year, and underdiagnosis is a major challenge. Only about 6.4 million of the 10 million people who contracted TB in 2017 were officially recorded by national reporting systems. The WHO 2018 Global TB Report noted that lack of affordable, sensitive and rapid detection of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the infectious organism that causes TB, is a major hurdle.

An easy-to-use, sensitive and low-cost point-of-care device compatible with automated, wireless reporting for resource-poor settings, would make a huge difference.

Relying on sensors to solve some of these problems may seem an impossibly ambitious goal, but we believe we can reach it. How? Nanopores.

Sensitive, Specific, Speedy

Nanopore sensors exploit small, brief changes in electronic current as molecules move through the pore, one by one. These changes in current result in a single-molecule sensor with unrivaled sensitivity (see Image set 1 and 2). The instrument in development has integrated sample prep, nucleic acid amplification and an array of nanopores downstream to assay up to 20 targets simultaneously, in less than 20 minutes. To maximize accessibility, the lightweight and portable device is durable and can perform precision diagnostics anywhere, from dirty and dusty fields to chaotic clinics.

The potential applications of this technology are endless. In agriculture, crop diseases cause significant losses. The ability to simultaneously detect pathogen and multiple resistance markers could support precision spraying, while real-time molecular monitoring could aid in forecast planting and treatment regimens.

In medicine, significant investment is being made towards the development and deployment of low-cost point-of-care diagnostic devices, including a recent $2.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to test nanopore detection of tuberculosis. (Link to our paper: By providing better biological information, low-cost, sensitive and specific sensors that can go outside the lab can and should contribute to a healthier planet.

William Dunbar, Ph.D., is Co-Founder and CTO of Ontera, The Ontera website is: He will be delivering a talk, “Bringing the Lab to Your Side: The Evolution of Ontera's Single-Molecule Sensing Platforms,” at the Medical Sensors Design Conference 2019 on June 25 in San Jose, CA.

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