The wonder stuff

Posted on: 08/09/2017

Applying bio-functionalisation techniques to graphene-based sensors is helping to unearth health issues at an early stage.

How graphene’s sensitivity helps with disease detection.

We look at some of the rising stars of innovation who, with KTN’s support, exhibited at this year’s IdTechEx show in Berlin, which showcases the latest in emerging technologies.

A spin-out of Swansea University, Prognomics Ltd is developing new, super-sensitive sensors that are based on the material of the moment, graphene. For Prognomics Director Daniele Donnedu and Senior R&D Engineer Greg Burwell, it’s perfectly suited to their work in early disease detection.

What are you working on at the moment?

We’ve just finished an Innovate UK project with a consortium of partners including the University of Cambridge, the National Physical Laboratory and Unilever. We’re developing new ways to detect allergens in food manufacturing. We’re now taking this forward, from feasibility studies to industrial research and then commercialisation. It will enable much better detection of allergens than has been possible in the past.

So what’s different about your technology?

Ours is a platform technology: it can be tailored for different applications. Some are health-related, while others are used in the food industry. We use patented technology under licence from Swansea University, which revolves around proprietary techniques for surface functionalisation. Surface functionalisation means changing the surface of a material by giving it different physical, chemical or biological characteristics from the ones it originally had. One of the main materials we work on is graphene.

What’s so special about graphene?

One of the reasons we’re attracted to graphene, as a bio-sensor company, is that it is extremely sensitive to its chemical environment: it can be used to detect all sorts of different things. But to make a bio-sensor, the surface doesn’t just have to be sensitive, it has to be very selective. What we bring to the table is a range of bio-functionalisation techniques, which modify the graphene surface and make it very selective.

What can your sensors detect?

There’s a wide range of things that they can be tailored to pick up – at the moment, we have active programmes of work for detecting allergens, but we can also detect cardiac bio-markers, or bio-markers for Alzheimer’s (primarily by finding traces in the blood). The devices are very small – for allergens, less than two millimetres squared – which means they can be used in many different settings.

Is using graphene your USP?

There are currently no commercial products based on graphene in this area. There are other 2D materials, sandwich materials and nano-structures out there, but they are all at an early stage. Some may be suitable for specific niche applications, so we keep an open mind about them.

So where are you now with your allergen detector?

This is the furthest that our platform has yet been brought in any application. We’ve established feasibility, and proven the concept. That wasn’t just a matter of funding, but of bringing people together: we’re a micro-company, so we had to be part of a consortium.

It also required a team approach, because there was no way that we could have achieved it on our own – the range of expertise that’s needed is a large one. We developed something of a supply chain: from the manufacturing of the graphene, its transfer, and evaluation of different sub-strates for growing it, through to the characterisation of the material. We were responsible for the development of devices, whose potential was then evaluated by Unilever, the end-user.

“The ultimate goal of our healthcare applications is to pick up on things long before they would otherwise be apparent.”

What are your next steps?

Now we need to take the concept from the lab to potentially manufacturing it. There is a big gap there which requires a lot of work. We’re exploring avenues with Innovate UK, and at the same time, we are progressing our main platform through other funding streams.

And what could this mean for people’s health?

The ultimate goal of our healthcare applications is to pick up on things long before they would otherwise be apparent. A lot of work is going on to understand the right mix of bio-markers that are needed to detect disease as early as possible. We work on two different kinds of health diagnostics: one is for critical events such as myocardial infarction, where speed of detection is important. Our devices are faster than most, and are available at the point of care. The other involves early detection of diseases. With a heart attack you want to know if it is or isn’t, and you want to know it now: for Alzheimer’s you want to know twenty years before it manifests.

How have KTN helped you, so far?

There has been a lot of public investment in graphene: now we need companies like us to begin using the material and justifying that expenditure. Graphene has properties that we need to use, to deliver what we want to deliver. You can get a hype bubble with a new material: people talk it up in order to get grants, but we’re at the stage now where the real applications are starting to filter through. KTN has been instrumental in connecting us to the right people: suppliers of graphene, and people who are developing new ways of making it. KTN have been helpful at a number of levels: for example offering to look at whether we’re going in the right direction for getting funding, which is very valuable for us.

What did you get from the Berlin event?

It was great to be part of a technology event like IdTechEx, to know what’s going on. We’re a small company, so a lot of the value was in getting people to know who we are, and to know that companies are starting to use graphene now: that it’s coming out of academia, coming out of the lab, and into real-world applications. We’ve had a lot of feedback from people since going to Berlin, expressing interest in what we’re doing, saying ‘we’re trying to detect this: would your technology be appropriate for doing that.’ That was great: having KTN’s support in having a stall there, representing our company at such a big event.

Finally, what’s the big picture for graphene and the UK?

Graphene is an area where the UK has real strengths. Companies like ours are coming out of the academic strengths that the UK has in this area, and where a lot of investment has been made, especially in Cambridge and Manchester. The main obstacles for us to overcome now are in developing processes that can be scaled-up to the manufacturing level. Beyond that, there’s no real obstacle to getting devices made in high volumes.

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