Virginia Tech researcher receives $400,000 NSF grant to develop novel skin scent sampler

The human skin is the largest organ of the body. It also protects internal living tissues and other organs, regulates body temperature, and even metabolizes vitamin D. Studies suggest that skin diseases alter the molecular and microbial makeup of human skin, making it a rich source of information about our physical health.

Masoud Agah, Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor, founding director of Virginia Nanotechnology Networked Infrastructure and researcher in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, has received a nearly $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to which aims to develop a novel skin odor sampler. Agah will work with researchers from Ireland to develop this new biomedical device.

The proposed skin odor sampler, dubbed SenSorp, will be able to monitor the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) collected in real time. Dermal VOCs found on the skin’s surface originate from glandular secretions and their interactions with external microorganisms. They can provide insight into a person’s health and provide a non-invasive way to study the body’s biochemistry. More than 500 compounds have been detected when testing skin gland secretions, including aldehydes (commonly used as insecticides for plants and vegetables), carboxylic acids, alcohols, ketones, and derivatives of ammonia or amines.

Recent research has highlighted the link between volatile skin components and the possible passage of compounds from blood vessels, dietary influences and aging-related metabolic activity. Additionally, research has shown that dogs have the olfactory ability to detect the presence of COVID-19 based on the body’s volatile emission. Therefore, researchers have identified the skin and VOCs as important resources when it comes to identifying health problems and detecting certain diseases.

Sensorp’s skin odor collector informs the user via mobile app along with its smart key, which measures the collected VOCs in real time, when the skin odor collection is complete. This communication is accomplished through the embedded electronic circuitry of the device.

The ultimate goal of this new skin sensor is that of an at-home COVID test. Consumers now expect minimally invasive, affordable and convenient healthcare options. Devices like Sensorp fill this need and help ease the burden on healthcare providers and hospital systems.

SenSorp enables caregivers, parents of sick children and nursing home doctors, among others, to carry out the test and send the test kit to a laboratory for analysis.

Agah has over 20 years of experience applying electrical and computer engineering concepts to biomedical research projects. For this project, the head of the Faculty of Microelectromechanical Systems will contribute to the design and manufacture of these new devices. Specifically, Agah will develop the unique 3D-printed SenSorp package with a rotating locking mechanism, as well as the SenSorp auto-injector module that releases the collected sample into gas chromatography systems in the form of a sharp plug. After these two pieces of gear are crafted, Agah sends them to the other team members.

This collaborative research project involves the expertise of two academic researchers from Ireland. Co-Project Leader Hamza Shakeel is an Assistant Professor at the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is very familiar with gas sensors for microelectromechanical systems and will help to assess the VOCs emitted by the skin and absorbed by SenSorp. In addition, Shakeel will assist in the development and evaluation of the future wearable device, including proposed signal conditioning and Bluetooth data transfer to a laptop or smartphone.

Shakeel, a former graduate student of Agah, graduated from Virginia Tech’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department in 2015. Agah said he was excited at 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 be using in this research,” Agah said. “He works on low cost sensors for gas monitoring and we thought this would be a great opportunity to start a new way of working together. The NSF funded project leverages our skin odor sensing technology and uses its sensor to determine how long this odor collection should continue.”

Aoife Morrin, co-principal investigator, is Associate Professor of Analytical Chemistry at Dublin City University’s School of Chemical Sciences. She is an expert in the field of chemical sensors and materials chemistry for biomedical and environmental applications, especially epidermal sensors. For this research project, Morrin will validate the Sensorp technology as a reliable skin odor sampler to discriminate between human odors through gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis. She looks forward to the impact this research will have in improving global health.

The prospect of finding new biomarkers that we can non-invasively collect from our skin is very enticing -; it has the potential to address a formidable challenge in today’s healthcare diagnostics. I look forward to working with Masoud and the Belfast team to see what and how we can contribute to this exciting field together.”

Aoife Morrin, Co-Principal Investigator

Several PhD students in electrical and computer engineering are also involved in the project and have enjoyed gaining hands-on experience throughout the research process. Nipun Thamatam is a research assistant studying electrical engineering and works directly with Agah on the Sensorp project. His main focus will be working on microfabricated preconcentrators that collect very low concentrated samples to make them 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 deeper about the problem instead of being limited to a solution. His appreciation and support for innovation gives me great creative freedom to implement new and unconventional ideas.”

In the years to come, Agah and his team hope to use the same technology to capture 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 smell of our skin for a certain period of time. The collected odor can then be analyzed using sophisticated laboratory equipment or inexpensive sensors to detect changes for signs of possible physical or mental illness.

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 work under the Virginia Tech Pre-College Initiative Program conducted by the College of Engineering’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity . The goal of these model skin sensors is to introduce high school students to advanced science and technology and help them make connections to the ways these disciplines can be brought together 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’re shopping, it collects your skin odor, and then you can insert it into a micro gas chromatograph for an instant analysis,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we need access to novel technologies that we can scale quickly, 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.”

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