Promises Not Kept: Biosensors and Promises of Cheap and Accessible Diagnostic Devices
I have fond memories of watching Star Trek with my Dad on our old Black and White TV. The scenes that most fascinated me were of McCoy whipping out his Tricorder to diagnose any medical problem during extraterrestrial tour to “places where no one has gone before”. Looking through the lens of reality I realize that Tricorder is probably as realistic as intergalactic travel on Star Ship Enterprise. Still I remain fascinated by Tricorder!
Biosensors on the other hand aim at more modest goals of providing diagnostic tools that are accurate, accessible away from clinical setting, easy to operate and reasonably priced. As a fresh graduate student, I worked on designing optical fiber biosensor for detection of tropical disease Kala Azar and had the opportunity to interact with physicians and patients. Observing the avoidable pain and suffering a misdiagnosed or undiagnosed diseases can cause was an eye opener for me and convinced me of value of portable biosensing devices. This was almost 15 years back and unfortunately the field of Biosensors has been mostly about the “promises not kept”.
It is not to say that nothing exciting has happened in past 15 years, rather they have been filled with great advances. DNA/Protein arrays promise revolution by probing whole genome/ proteome of patient samples not only for diagnosis but also to predict diseases before they happen and also help discover drugs to cure diseases. In recent years, Mass Spectroscopy tools are making similar promises of diagnosing diseases by comparing protein signature of patient samples with normal samples. Nanotechnology is bringing in ever smaller tools exquisitely sensitive to specific biomarkers. By packing hundreds and possibly thousands of these miniature sensors in one device it may one day be possible to detect every possible biomarker in a drop of blood, saliva or sweat from a patient. New micro/nano fluidics devices designed using modern lithographic technology are capable of handling minute amount of patient samples and can enhance the sensitivity and accuracy of any biosensor. But all these advances remain just promises of providing accessible biosensors sometimes in future.
I have often wondered why? All the necessary ingredients are present: vision for providing excellent diagnostic tools to the masses, a vibrant research community working hard to fulfill that vision and a huge market demand for biosensors in diagnosis, environmental monitoring, food testing, and national security. Answer probably lies in challenges that need to be overcome for translating academic research into commercial devices. There is a need for constant communication between people who invent and people who can convert inventions into products and hence the logic behind this blog.
Why write a blog about biosensors? Research journals provide a platform for presenting the technical side of the story but there exist no platform where the same research can be looked at from commercial point of view. My goal is to provide a platform for research community and business community to come together and engage in free and frank discussion on the commercial merits of a particular biosensing technology. I intend to highlight latest research in Biosensors and hope you the reader will leave comments and your insights.
Who am I? My day job is working as a scientist for Promega, a life sciences reagent and instrumentation company located in Madison, WI. I have worked on several aspect of biosensing including designing nanoparticle based biosensors, protein arrays, and designing novel bio-interfaces or protein immobilization tools. During my spare time I like to work on this Blog, Cook and just have fun.
Thanks for visiting!