Rutgers University researchers have created a sensor that detects nitrite, an important inflammatory biomarker in the inner lining of the respiratory airway, which could lead to earlier detection of asthma attacks and other respiratory conditions.

The graphene-based nanoelectronic sensor measures nitrite in tiny liquid droplets discharged during breathing. Researchers discussed their device in a study published last week in the journal Microsystems & Nanoengineering.

As a “portable non-invasive approach for measuring indicators of inflammation and oxidative stress in the respiratory tract by quantifying a biomarker in exhaled breath condensate,” the sensor is seen as a potential replacement for other “currently available non-invasive methods for diagnosing and monitoring asthma (that are) limited by low sensitivity and the need for expensive and bulky equipment,” according to the authors.

Mehdi Javanmard, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, contends that the handheld tool can monitor nitrite and enable better diagnoses as well as more appropriate treatments and management of asthma and other respiratory diseases, while in the process preventing costly hospitalizations and even deaths.

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“This is the first critical step in basically miniaturizing an electrochemical sensor that accurately measures nitrite in exhaled breath condensate,” says Javanmard. “We now have essentially a chip that is the size of my finger.”

Ultimately, he says the goal is to develop a wearable system that asthmatic patients and others with respiratory conditions can wear on their wrist or around their neck and blow into to get a reading for the possible extent of lung inflammation.

“Our plan is to have the storage of the data and the analysis performed on a smartphone, and then to have the information uploaded to the cloud,” adds Javanmard, who believes the system could be commercially available within five years.

“To get a medical device on the market, we will have to go through FDA approval,” he concludes. “However, to just build the technology itself and be in a position where we can start doing clinical trials, that’s on the order of less than a year away. The real bottleneck is the time it takes to go through regulatory hurdles.”

At the same time, Javanmard says the Rutgers research team is still looking for a commercial partner such as a medical device manufacturer with which they can collaborate on the project.

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