Sensor chip created that can detect anthrax in small amounts

Four graduate students at Northwestern University have created a sensor chip that has the ability to detect dangerous substances, including anthrax, in patients.

Ryan Gelfand, one of the students who worked on the project, told that the sensor, which is three millimeters in length, uses a laser and an antenna to identify and chart low-concentration molecules, like cancer antigens or anthrax spores.

The students worked under the supervision of Associate Professor Hooman Mohseni in the Bio-inspired Sensors and Optoelectronics Laboratory to develop the sensor. Gelfand worked with fellow EECS students Jack Kohoutek, who focused on optical measurement; Dibyendu Dey, the lasers and fabrication specialist; and Alireza Bonakdar, who aided in the theoretical component of the project.

Gelfand said the technology is particularly useful for the detection of biomolecules, viruses and bacteria that are typically difficult to extract from biological systems.

“The sensor is initially a first step toward a...‘lab on a chip,'” Gelfand told “So the idea is that you're in an ambulance or you're at the doctor's office, and they can check for cancer antigens to see if you have cancer right at the point of care.”

Gelfand said that detecting biomolecules is fairly easy, but that the difficulty lies in detecting molecules in low concentration.

“The real challenge is quantity,” Gelfand said, reports. “For example, one anthrax spore could create a whole epidemic. It's the needle in a haystack problem. If I give you an entire box of baking soda, and I hid in that little box of baking soda one spore of anthrax, we cannot detect it with the technologies that we have now, but it certainly can still be dangerous.”

Gelfand said the sensor will have plenty of uses in the medical field and that it holds potential applications in the realm of homeland security. The chip, he said, could make it easier for hazmat teams to quickly identify anthrax in or on envelopes.

Mohensi said the team is hoping to apply the sensor’s technology to cell phones to create a type of monitoring device.

“The goal is that all cell phones could monitor and send directly to a secure computer chemical levels, and the doctor would receive an alert if something goes out of the norm,” Mohseni said, reports. “But, also outside of acute events, this sensor could be used to detect gradual change in your baseline chemistry in the body … like a constant wireless health care system.”