Czech-developed appliance detects dangerous biological substances

Photo: Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics

In possible cases of bio-terrorist attacks or leaks of dangerous substances into the environment, efficient detection and early-warning systems could save many lives. Czech scientists have developed a special optical sensor, a device which can detect dangerous biological substances in the environment.

We spoke to Jiri Homola from the Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics in Prague and asked him first how exactly the optical sensor worked.

"Our sensor uses a special type of electromagnetic wave, so-called surface plasmon, which propagates along a very thin layer of gold. We immobilize special bio-molecular receptors, such as antibodies, on the surface of the sensor and then bring a sample, which is usually a liquid, into contact with the surface of the chip, or sensor. When the capture of analyte on the receptors occurs, a change of speed of the surface plasmon occurs and we can measure that change of speed very precisely."

Can you describe the appliance, what does it look like?Which substances can be detected by the sensor?

"The great advantage of this approach is that it can be combined with receptors for many different kinds of analytes. So analytes can include certain chemicals, hormones, toxins, bacteria, etc. In addition, our sensors have multi-analyte capability which allows them to detect multiple analytes at the same time."

"Well, we have developed a whole variety of sensor platforms. They range from large high-performance table-top laboratory systems to highly miniaturized fiber optic probes for operation in hard-to-access locations. Currently we are finishing the first prototype of a mobile sensor unit for rapid detection of biological substances in the field. The whole sensor system is of a size of a shoe box and is connected to a laptop for data acquisition and processing. The sensor runs from batteries and should be able to operate in the field for up to 10 hours."

Can you describe the appliance, what does it look like?What are the potential situations in which the optical sensor can be applied?

"There are numerous existing and emerging applications for this technology. These include early-warning systems for detection and identification of potentially hazardous substances in public places, mobile systems for food-safety inspectors, systems for continuous environmental monitoring, diagnostic tools for rapid detection of human health indicators, such as hormones, antibodies, etc."

Have you cooperated with any international institutions in the development of the device?

Can you describe the appliance, what does it look like? "Yes. This is a highly interdisciplinary research in which we collaborate with research institutions and universities worldwide. We have very strong collaboration with the University of Washington, Seattle. Under a grant awarded to us by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) we are working on the next generation of detection technologies for pathogens and toxins for food safety. Besides the FDA, this research is sponsored by the Czech National Foundation and the European Commission."

According to Jiri Homola from the Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, negotiations with two US companies and a Japanese consortium are underway. They concern joint development of the sensor technology and aim to bring the Czech-developed technology on the market.