Beauty is only skin deep. As it turns out, so is disease detection.
Professor Masoud Agah has received a National Science Foundation grant to develop a novel skin sensor that provides insight into an individual's health.
Human skin is the body's largest organ. It also protects internal living tissue and other organs, regulates body temperature, and even metabolizes vitamin D. Studies suggest that skin diseases modify the molecular and microbial composition of human skin, making it a rich source of information about our physical health.
Masoud Agah, Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor, founding director of the Virginia Nanotechnology Networked Infrastructure, and researcher in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, has been awarded a nearly $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that aims to develop a novel skin scent sampler. Agah will collaborate with researchers from Ireland to develop this new biomedical device.
The proposed skin scent sampler, named SenSorp, will have the ability to monitor the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) collected in real time. Skin VOCs, found on the skin’s surface, are derived from gland secretions and their interactions with external microorganisms. They can give insight into the health of an individual and offer a noninvasive route to probe the body’s biochemistry. Testing of skin gland secretions has detected more than 500 compounds, including aldehydes (often used as insecticides for plants and vegetables), carboxylic acids, alcohols, ketones, and derivatives of ammonia or amines.
Recent research has highlighted the link between skin volatiles and the potential passage of compounds from blood vessels, dietary influences, and age-related metabolic activity. In addition, research has shown that dogs have the olfactory ability to detect the presence of COVID-19 from the volatile emission of the body. Therefore, researchers have identified the skin and VOCs as importance resources when it comes to identifying health issues and detecting certain diseases.
The SenSorp skin scent sampler, along with its Smart Key, which measures the collected VOCs in real time, informs the user via mobile app when the skin odor collection is complete. This communication is achieved through the device’s embedded electronic circuitry.
The ultimate goal of this new skin sensor parallels that of an at-home COVID test. Consumers have come to expect minimally invasive, affordable, and convenient options for health care needs. Devices like Sensorp meet this need and are beneficial in reducing the burden on health care providers and hospital systems.
SenSorp allows caregivers, parents of sick children, and nursing home clinicians, among others, to administer the test and send the test kit to a lab for analysis.
Agah has more than 20 years of experience applying electrical and computer engineering concepts to biomedical engineering research projects. For this project, the Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems faculty lead will contribute to the design and fabrication of these new devices. Specifically, Agah will develop the SenSorp unique 3D-printed package with rotatory lock-in mechanism as well as the SenSorp Auto Injector Module, which will release the collected sample in the form of a sharp plug into gas chromatography systems. After these two pieces of equipment are fabricated, Agah will send them over to the other team members.
This collaborative research project includes the expertise of two academic researchers from Ireland. Co-principal investigator Hamza Shakeel is an assistant professor at the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s University in Belfast. He is well-versed in Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems gas sensors and will help evaluate the VOCs emitted from the skin and absorbed by SenSorp. Additionally, Shakeel will assist with the development and evaluation of the future wearable device, including its proposed signal conditioning and bluetooth transmission of data to a laptop or smartphone.
Shakeel, a former doctoral student of Agah’s, graduated from Virginia Tech’s electrical and computer engineering department in 2015. Agah said he was excited about the opportunity to work with Shakeel in a new capacity.
“He is the inventor of some of the technologies we have developed here at Virginia Tech and will be using in this research,” said Agah. “He is working on low-cost sensors for gas monitoring, and we thought this will be a great opportunity to start a new type of working together. The funded NSF project uses our technology for skin odor collection and uses his sensor to determine how long this odor collection should continue.”
Aoife Morrin, co-principal investigator, is an associate professor of analytical chemistry at the School of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University. She is an expert within the field of chemical sensors and materials chemistry for biomedical and environmental applications, specifically epidermal sensors. For this research project, Morrin will validate the Sensorp technology as a reliable skin odor sampler to differentiate between human odors through gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analysis. She looks forward to the impact that this research will have on improving worldwide health.
“The prospect of finding new biomarkers that we can collect noninvasively from our skin is very enticing — it has the potential to address a massive challenge in health diagnostics today,” said Morrin. “I’m looking forward to working with Masoud and the Belfast team to see what and how we can collaboratively contribute to this exciting field.”
Several graduate students in electrical and computer engineering also are involved with the project and have enjoyed gaining hands-on experience throughout the research process. Nipun Thamatam is a graduate research assistant studying electrical engineering and is working directly with Agah on the Sensorp project. His main focus will be working on microfabricated preconcentrators that collect very low-concentration samples to make them detectable.
“Dr. Agah regularly expresses what a device could be or do in 10 years instead of what it will be shortly,” said Thamatam. “Our conversations inspire me to think deeper about the problem rather than restricting myself to one solution. His appreciation and support for innovation give me great creative freedom to execute new and unconventional ideas.”
In future years, Agah and his team hope to use this same technology to tap into the wearable medical devices market, which is expected to reach $196 billion by 2030, according to Grand View Research. The goal is to eventually develop a wearable semiconductor chip that collects the odor of our skin for a period of time. The collected odor can then be analyzed using sophisticated laboratory equipment or low-cost sensors to detect changes for signs of possible physical or mental disease.
In addition to the proposed research and development of this novel skin sensor, Agah and his team will create demos of the system as part of educational outreach in the Virginia Tech Pre-College Initiative Program, run by the Virginia Tech chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. The goal of these model skin sensors is to introduce high school students to advanced science and engineering and to help them make connections to the way these disciplines can be merged to solve real-world problems.
Agah envisions a day in the future when shoppers can use one of these semiconductor skin patches at their local pharmacy or grocery store.
“Imagine — while you do your shopping, it collects your skin odor, and then you can insert it into a micro gas chromatograph to do an instant analysis,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we need to have access to novel technologies that we can scale up rapidly, deploy in mass, and then use those technologies to monitor our individual health and prevent disease spreading. This research is a direct call to those challenges.”