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Wu’s $3.4-million Grant Supports Crafting a Portable Sensor to Help Diagnose Brain Injuries

Nianqiang Wu

Nianqiang Wu

Nianqiang “Nick” Wu, the Armstrong/Siadat Endowed Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the principal investigator on a $3.4-million grant from the National Institutes of Health to support his creation of a portable optical sensor system for assisting in the diagnosis of traumatic brain injuries, which impact some 27-million people worldwide each year. Wu’s new testing system could be used in the field – at the scene of an accident or injury – and would take only minutes to obtain results.

The pioneering sensor system consists of an ultra-sensitive test strip, smaller than a credit card, and a portable electronic reader to record the test results. Medics, or even laypeople, could help diagnose the severity of brain injuries in the field by administering a drop of the victim’s blood from a finger prick to the test strip and then feeding that strip into the diagnostic reader. The technique is similar to that commonly used by millions of diabetics to test their own blood sugar.

“Traumatic brain injury is usually caused by collision with a violent blow to the head,” says Wu in describing the background for his research. It happens in car accidents, battlefield injuries, football collisions, playground mishaps, baseball “beaning” incidents, and even at home.

In the U.S., Wu notes, 5.3-million people live with disabilities caused by traumatic brain injury every year. Approximately 80 percent of these cases are originally recorded during emergency department visits. The total direct and indirect costs for traumatic-brain-injury treatment are estimated to be $60 billion annually in the U.S.

“So far,” says Wu, “no testing methods are available for rapid, quantitative, and objective assessment of the severity of traumatic brain injury in emergency departments or on sites of accidents. To meet such critical need, our research team is developing a device to test a drop of finger-prick blood to assist diagnosis of traumatic brain injury.”

Wu says that his test strip looks like a pregnancy test strip, but its internal structure is engineered with nanotechnology to amplify detection signals and reduce false alarms.

According to Wu, “Currently blood tests require a tube of blood from venipuncture and take hours or days to get the test reports from a central laboratory. This device can be read with a portable reader by a layperson at emergency rooms, clinics, football [fields], [playing] courts, and at home.”

Wu estimates that the device will be able to supply results within 25 minutes. He concludes that “If successful, such an inexpensive and rapid diagnostic testing tool will change practice in diagnosis of traumatic brain injury in the emergency departments and pre-hospital settings. It will increase the accuracy of diagnosis, reduce costs, and allow for earlier medical treatment aimed at mitigating both short- and long-term sequelae.”

Wu’s NIH research is a collaborative project involving multidisciplinary researchers from several institutions and hospitals, including the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.”

Wu is a Fellow of the Electrochemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry and one of nine Highly Cited Researchers at UMass Amherst named by Clarivate Analytics (Web of Science). The Wu Research Group aims to gain fundamental understanding of charge transfer and energy transfer in electrochemical and optoelectronic materials and devices, an approach that gives his team “a unique advantage in developing high-performance materials and devices with the ‘material-by-design’ strategy,” as he explains. (August 2021)