Human skin is the largest organ in the body. It also protects internal living tissue and other organs, regulates body temperature, and even metabolizes vitamin D. Studies suggest that skin diseases change the molecular and microbial composition of human skin, making it a rich source of information about our Physical Health.
Masoud Agah, a professor in the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium, founding director of the Virginia Nanotechnology Network Infrastructure, and a researcher in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, received a nearly $400,000 grant from the National Foundation for Sciences (NSF) that aims to develop a new sample of aromas for the skin. Agah will collaborate with researchers in Ireland to develop this new biomedical device.
The proposed skin odor sampler, called SenSorp, will have the ability to monitor the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) collected in real time. Skin VOCs, found on the surface of the skin, are derived from gland secretions and their interactions with external microorganisms. They can provide insight into an individual’s health and offer a non-invasive route to probe the body’s biochemistry. Tests of skin gland secretions have 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. Furthermore, research has shown that dogs have the olfactory ability to detect the presence of COVID-19 from the body’s volatile emission. For this reason, researchers have identified the skin and VOCs as important resources when it comes to identifying health problems and detecting certain diseases.
The Sensorp Skin Odor Sampler, along with its Smart Key, which measures collected VOCs in real time, informs the user via the mobile app when skin odor collection is complete. This communication is achieved through the integrated electronic circuit of the device.
The ultimate goal of this new skin sensor parallels that of a home COVID test. Consumers expect minimally invasive, affordable and convenient options for their healthcare needs. Devices like Sensorp fill this need and are beneficial in reducing the burden on healthcare providers and hospital systems.
SenSorp allows caregivers, parents of sick children, and nursing home doctors, among others, to administer the test and send the test kit to a laboratory 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 leader will contribute to the design and fabrication of these new devices. Specifically, Agah will develop SenSorp’s unique 3D-printed package with twist-lock mechanism, as well as the SenSorp auto-injector module, which will release the collected sample as a sharp plug into gas chromatography systems. After crafting these two pieces of equipment, Agah will send them 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 in the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s University Belfast. He is well versed in Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems gas sensors and will help assess VOCs emitted through the skin and absorbed by SenSorp. In addition, Shakeel will help with the development and evaluation of the future wearable device, including proposed signal conditioning and bluetooth transmission of data to a laptop or smartphone.
Shakeel, Agah’s former doctoral student, 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 that we have developed here at Virginia Tech that we will use in this research,” Agah said. “It’s working on low-cost sensors for gas monitoring, and we think this will be a great opportunity to start a new kind of work together. The NSF-funded project uses our technology to collect odor from skin and uses its sensor to determine how long this odor collection should continue.
Aoife Morrin, Co-Principal Investigator, is Associate Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the School of Chemical Sciences, Dublin City University. She is an expert in the field of chemical sensors and material chemistry for biomedical and environmental applications, specifically epidermal sensors. For this research project, Ella Morrin will validate Sensorp technology as a reliable skin odor sampler for differentiating human odors through gas chromatography and mass spectrometry analysis. She looks forward to the impact this research will have on improving health around the world.
The prospect of finding new biomarkers that we can collect non-invasively from our skin is very tempting; it has the potential to address a massive challenge in health diagnostics today. I am looking forward to working with Masoud and the Belfast team to see what and how we can collaboratively contribute to this exciting field.”
Aoife Morrin, co-principal investigator
Several graduate students in electrical and computer engineering are also involved in the project and have enjoyed gaining practical experience throughout the research process. Nipun Thamatam is a graduate research assistant studying electrical engineering who is working directly with Agah on the Sensorp project. His main focus will be working on microfabricated preconcentrators that collect samples too low in concentration to be detectable.
“Dr. Agah regularly expresses what a device could be or do in 10 years rather than what it will be shortly,” Thamatam said. “Our conversations inspire me to think more deeply about the problem instead of limiting myself to a solution. His appreciation and support for innovation gives me great creative freedom to execute new and unconventional ideas.”
In the coming years, Agah and his team hope to use this same technology to tap into the wearable medical device 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 from our skin over a period of time. The collected odor can then be analyzed using sophisticated laboratory equipment or inexpensive sensors to detect changes for signs of potential physical or mental illness.
In addition to the proposed research and development of this novel skin sensor, Agah and his team will create demonstrations of the system as part of educational outreach at the Virginia Tech Precollege Initiative Program, run by the Center for the Enhancement of Diversity of engineering. The goal of these model skin sensors is to introduce high school students to advanced science and engineering and help them make connections to how these disciplines can be merged to solve real-world problems.
Agah envisions a day in the future when shoppers will be able to use one of these semiconductor skin patches at their local pharmacy or grocery store.
“Imagine: while you’re shopping, it picks up the scent on your skin and then you can insert it into a microgas chromatograph for 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 en masse, and then use those technologies to monitor our individual health and prevent the spread of disease. This research is a direct call to those challenges”.