Self-powered, Blood-activated Sensor Detects Pancreatitis Quickly and Cheaply

April 25, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — A new low cost test for acute pancreatitis that gets results much faster than existing tests has been developed by scientists at The University of Texas at Austin.

The sensor, which could be produced for as little as a dollar, is built with a 12-cent LED light, aluminum foil, gelatin, milk protein and a few other cheap, easily obtainable materials.

Self-Powered Sensor for Naked-Eye Detection of Serum Trypsin

The sensor could help prevent damage from acute pancreatitis, which is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas that can lead to severe stomach pain, nausea, fever, shock and in some cases, death.

“We’ve turned Reynold’s Wrap, JELL-O and milk into a way to look for organ failure,” says Brian Zaccheo, a graduate student in the lab of Richard Crooks, professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

The sensor, which is about the size of a matchbox, relies on a simple two-step process to diagnose the disease.

In step one, a bit of blood extract is dropped onto a layer of gelatin and milk protein. If there are high levels of trypsin, an enzyme that is overabundant in the blood of patients with acute pancreatitis, the trypsin will break down the gelatin in much the same way it breaks down proteins in the stomach.

Brian Zaccheo and his pancreatitis sensor
Brian Zaccheo with his sensor for acute pancreatitis, which he estimates could be sold for as little as a dollar.

In step two, a drop of sodium hydroxide (lye) is added. If the trypsin levels were high enough to break down that first barrier, the sodium hydroxide can trickle down to the second barrier, a strip of Reynold’s wrap, and go to work dissolving it.

The foil corrodes, and with both barriers now permeable, a circuit is able to form between a magnesium anode and an iron salt at the cathode. Enough current is generated to light up a red LED. If the LED lights up within an hour, acute pancreatitis is diagnosed.

“In essence, the device is a battery having a trypsin-selective switch that closes the circuit between the anode and cathode,” write Zaccheo and Crooks in a paper recently published in Analytical Chemistry.

Zaccheo and Crooks, who have a provisional patent, can envision a number of potential uses for the sensor. It might help providers in the developing world who don’t have the resources to do the more complex tests for pancreatitis. It could be of use in situations where batteries are in short supply, such as after a natural disaster or in remote locations. And because of the speed of the sensor, it could be an excellent first-line measure even in well-stocked hospitals.

For Zaccheo, the most appealing aspect of the project isn’t so much the specific sensor. It is the idea we might be able to save time, money and even lives by adopting this kind of low-tech approach.

“I want to develop biosensors that are easy to use but give a high level of sensitivity,” he says. “All you need for this, for instance, is to know how to use a dropper and a timer.”

For more information, contact: Daniel Oppenheimer, Hogg Foundation, 512 745 3353; Brian Zaccheo, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, 512-475-7461.

9 Comments to "Self-powered, Blood-activated Sensor Detects Pancreatitis Quickly and Cheaply"

1.  B. Gene Goar said on April 28, 2011

I am a UT Austin Ch. E. (1956), and serve on the EAB council for Cockrell School of Engineering. My wife has been having nausea and stomach pains for over 1.5 years now, and the GI Dr's in Tyler, TX have run multiple tests and cannot find the source of her nausea and stomach pain. Maybe she has pancreatitis, and they have not found it. Would it be possible to have her blood checked by this new device? If so, I would like to pursue this with you.

2.  BCJUKES said on April 28, 2011


3.  MDLeCompteDO said on April 28, 2011

How refreshing. A cheap screening test to replace a $1000 abdominal CT and a $200 chemistry panel.

4.  Sharon Loken said on April 28, 2011

Our son, a former UT employee in cashier office, has been diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. His wife currently works in the Registrar's office ... This would of been so helpful as we have gone to local doctors and also to Dallas for help with this illness. His weight has gone from 152 to 120 over the past months ... God Bless you and if he could ever help you with your project I am sure he would be happy to accommodate. God Bless and great work.

5.  Art Wolff said on April 28, 2011

Innovative research is so exciting. I'm proud of the ingenuity being demonstrated in the labs of UT. Equally as proud of the American Cancer Society's histroy of funding research grants at the University of Texas (something that most people don't even know about.)

6.  Kathleen Sheehan said on April 28, 2011

Simple, cost-effective, elegant, and beautiful. Thanks for taking the time to think this creation through.
Best wishes.

7.  D J. Leath said on April 30, 2011

Does pancreatitis ever lead to pancreatic cancer? If so it would be nice to be able to purchase a "test it at home device to catch a cancer at the beginning", so many people wait until it is too late to go to the doctor.

8.  cas127 said on April 30, 2011

If UT had more stories like this, it would be more attractive to donate...

9.  merle mcdermott said on April 30, 2011

Graduate nurse from UT Nursing School, now retired nurse, wants to say thank you so much for pursuing this! Pancreatic cancer seems to becoming more widespread now. This early detection could save numerous lives. God bless you!