ASU engineer working to develop disposable point-of-care sensor

May 18, 2017

As an electrical engineer, Associate Professor Jennifer Blain Christen has spent a good portion of her career dabbling in different fields.

Her enthusiasm for exploring new and different ways of applying electrical engineering earned her the funding to leverage her expertise to create an innovative new diagnostic tool. Associate Professor of electrical engineering Jennifer Blain Christen holds an early prototype of a point-of-care diagnostic tool, which samples biomarkers in sweat to provide an immediate look into a patient's health. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU Download Full Image

The project aims to develop a disposable, point-of-care biosensor for rapid diagnosis and health monitoring, supported by a four-year, $1.8 million Smart and Connected Health award from the National Science Foundation.

Working in conjunction with Arizona State University’s Flexible Display Center and Professor Karen Anderson of the Biodesign Institute and the School of Life Sciences, Blain Christen envisions a sweat-absorbing patch about the size of a nicotine or birth control patch with the ability to provide an immediate window into a patient’s health.

This is accomplished with a small screen within the patch, much like a miniature TV screen, which uses light to examine molecules within sweat. The screen projects light through the molecules, and the color of light that emerges indicates the presence or absence of disease.

An added benefit of this approach is that each pixel on the screen can look for different biomarkers, or measurable indicators that can be used to diagnose disease, to look for a variety of illnesses or health conditions.

Blain Christen, a faculty member in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, also wants to enable these sensors to communicate with mobile devices, leveraging the computing power we all carry around with us in our smartphones.

“This way, it’s delegating diagnosis and monitoring to machines, so physicians and health-care professionals can dedicate their time to treatment,” she said.

In addition to saving time, designing the patch to communicate with ubiquitous mobile devices opens new possibilities beyond point-of-care applications.

“There’s a huge availability of these devices that are really powerful computers,” said Blain Christen, who envisions using that power to collect location data to aid in epidemiological studies.

As an example, she points to developing nations, where it can be difficult to determine the severity and spread of an illness. In countries with dispersed, remote populations, there aren’t adequate resources nor technology available to effectively collect data.

Using existing devices, patch data could be sent to a central location for further study and analysis, providing a holistic picture of a disease or infection.

“Everyone has a cellphone. In some cases, people have cellphones before indoor plumbing,” said Blain Christen. “Why not use that technology to collect the information for a centralized body? That way you empower people with information to do something about it.”

The patches are designed to be cheap and disposable; they can be used one time and then discarded — another positive for their use in the developing world.

“A lot of different electronics components have gotten smaller and cheaper, so we can put more advanced capabilities into this thing while making it smaller and still retain the same kind of cost point for the technology,” said Blain Christen.

Such affordable, disposable devices have a range of applications — for instance, use as a rapid screening device for people entering a country from a region afflicted by Zika virus, Ebola or dengue fever, so that infections can be detected before they spread.

In addition to curbing epidemics and quickly identifying disease, the patches are being developed with sustained diagnostics in mind. Blain Christen and Anderson collected sweat samples to measure stress biomarkers to aid in the development of timed spot sensors — sensors that collect data over a period of time.

“We can time sequence it, so we can look for the same molecule at specific times throughout the day using different pixels,” said Blain Christen. “You can imagine when you wake up, your stress levels are going to be different than after you’ve had your morning coffee or you go out for a job or you’re sitting in your office all day.”

The collaboration between Anderson and Blain Christen began about three years ago. Blain Christen, who did her post-doctoral studies in a clinical lab at Johns Hopkins University, has long been interested in biomedical devices. When she first started at ASU, the Biodesign Institute was one of her first stops, where she began looking for research collaboration opportunities.

After an emphatic response from Anderson, Blain Christen knew it was the beginning of a great working relationship.

“She has a unique perspective. Though she’s a physician with a background in medicine, she understands engineering well enough to know what is possible,” Blain Christen said of Anderson. “She sees how you could create something that isn't there now. She’s really great at identifying all the possible applications for technology in health care.”

Likewise, while Blain Christen’s work is based in electronics, it’s the application of her research to other areas that she finds the most rewarding.

“We have such rich availability of resources in electronics,” she said. “To be able to leverage that and bring that into a new field is really exciting. It’s so much fun to learn and experiment with my discipline in other fields.”

Pete Zrioka

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU approves Open Access Policy

May 19, 2017

Public access to information is at the heart of a new policy at Arizona State University, the ASU Open Access Policy, which was passed by the University Senate and approved May 3 by University Provost Mark Searle.

The new policy, developed by the University Senate Open Access Task Force, aims to make it easier for ASU faculty and researchers to make their scholarly work more widely available and with fewer restrictions, and is in line with the university’s charter. students walking up steps from Hayden Library Download Full Image

Open access refers to peer-reviewed research that is made accessible to the public at no cost to the user — eliminating traditional copyright restrictions that many argue impede knowledge dissemination.

“ASU is committed to a fundamental principle of accessibility,” the motion statement reads. “This principle of accessibility includes open access to the knowledge generated and created by facul­ty members here at the university. Open Access to the scholarly works produced by ASU faculty members will allow individuals in Arizona, in the United States, and internationally to read journal articles freely and without the need for subscriptions or payment, thus disseminating this knowledge well beyond the typical audience.”

The need for open access

More than 70 universities in the United States, including Harvard, Duke and the University of California system, have adopted open access policies, part of a growing movement that is rapidly transforming the traditional model of scholarly publishing.

Many argue that making scientific data open and accessible carries major benefits for researchers and the public worldwide.

Just last year, ASU scientists were able to demonstrate how to quickly, cheaply and accurately diagnose the Zika virus in remote locations around the world through their research that was made available free online.

Open access articles are also read and cited at a higher rate than those published in traditional journals charging an access or subscription fee.

“One of the reasons we have open access policies is that it’s now a required condition of funding,” said Anali Perry, the scholarly communication librarian at ASU Library. “Many funding organizations — the NIH, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — now mandate open access for research they are supporting. In other words, they want the results of the research they’re funding to be openly available to anyone in the world.”

Perry says open access makes sense for everyone, but particularly for ASU.

“With our focus on access, impact and social justice, this policy really reflects our ASU values and is one way of advancing our philanthropic goals and demonstrating return on investment,” Perry said. “The latest health research coming out of ASU could very well help a doctor in Cambodia, who might not be able to pay $50 per article to make a better medical decision for a patient.”

How the policy works

The open access policy at ASU is like no other — what Perry describes as a “hybrid policy.”

This means that while all ASU faculty and researchers are supported by the policy and encouraged to make their work openly accessible, they have the right to choose to comply with the policy if open access is not a condition of funding.

“If you are funded by an agency that has an open access requirement, like the NIH, you are automatically covered by this policy, meaning you immediately grant ASU permission to make the research publicly available in the appropriate repository, such as PubMed Central, as well as the ASU Digital Repository,” Perry said. “If you’re not required by a funding organization to make your work available, then you have the option to grant this open access license to ASU on a case-by-case basis.”

Perry said the new ASU policy gives faculty the right to archive, at the very least, the final accepted manuscript of their journal articles in the ASU Digital Repository, the online platform managed by ASU Library to archive and share the university’s scholarship.

“The University Senate is proud to support open access as part of ASU’s fundamental commitment to the discovery and application of new knowledge to local, regional, national and global concerns,” said Arnold Maltz, an associate professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business, who is the incoming University Senate president. “Our members look forward to taking advantage of this policy to continue to make a positive difference in communities throughout the world.”

Where to get help

ASU Library will be working with Knowledge Enterprise Development and the Office of the Provost to help streamline processes in an effort to make open access an easy and attractive option for ASU researchers.

“At the library, we can work with faculty to help them identify what publishers make complying with open access policies easy and painless, and help them understand their publication agreements and self-archiving rights and options,” Perry said. “We can help faculty archive their work and ensure compliance with both the ASU policy and their funding agency requirements.”

For questions about the new open access policy, view the Open Access Task Force’s FAQs, email Anali Perry and visit her scholarly communication library guide

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library