Light to diagnose disease
Pierre Berini’s finding in 1998 that he could guide light along thin metallic strips was a bit of a fluke, but it laid the groundwork for the biosensors he’s developing today. “When I looked at the calculation results, I had that eureka moment: ‘Oh boy, this thing is useful.’ I envisioned the next ten years of work, fabricating new devices, with lots of potential applications and lots of students involved,” he says.
That flashbulb vision continues to shine for Berini, University Research Chair in Surface Plasmon Photonics and an electrical engineering professor. His biosensors could revolutionize medical diagnostics. A study done in partnership with the University of Malaya, led by shared student Wei Ru Wong, proved that the new technology can detect the mosquito-borne dengue virus in blood.
The next step for Berini’s multi-disciplinary research group — which combines the talents of physics, chemistry, and electrical, biomedical and chemical engineering students — is to develop a hand-held biosensor that works by using special light waves called surface plasmons to observe how cells, proteins or other biochemicals interact with coatings on thin strips of gold. Changes captured by the biosensor’s mini-spotlights signal instant detection. Further work is underway to improve dengue detection, and to detect leukemia, urinary infections and a thyroid-stimulating hormone. “The vision is to put these biosensors in the hands of medical practitioners so they can detect disease in real time,” says Berini.