Scientists at Rutgers University say they have developed a graphene-based sensor that could lead to earlier detection of asthma attacks and improve the management of asthma and other respiratory diseases, and so prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

The sensor could eventually result in fitness trackers like the Fitbit, which people could wear and then know when and at what dosage to take their medication.

“Our vision is to develop a device that someone with asthma or another respiratory disease can wear around their neck or on their wrist and blow into it periodically to predict the onset of an asthma attack or other problems,” said Mehdi Javanmard, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering. “It advances the field of personalized and precision medicine.”

Dr. Javanmard and his team published their study (“Toward Point-of-Care Management of Chronic Respiratory Conditions: Electrochemical Sensing of Nitrite Content in Exhaled Breath Condensate using Reduced Graphene Oxide”) online in Microsystems & Nanoengineering.

Asthma, which causes inflammation of the airway and obstructs airflow, affects about 300 million people worldwide. About 17.7 million adults and 6.3 million children in the U.S. were diagnosed with asthma in 2014. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Other serious lung ailments include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which encompasses emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Today's noninvasive methods for diagnosing and monitoring asthma are limited in characterizing the nature and degree of airway inflammation and require costly, bulky equipment that patients cannot easily keep with them. The methods include spirometry, which measures breathing capacity, and testing for exhaled nitric oxide, an indicator of airway inflammation. There's an urgent need for improved, minimally invasive methods for the molecular diagnosis and monitoring of asthma, the study says.

Measuring biomarkers in exhaled breath condensate can contribute to understanding asthma at the molecular level and lead to targeted treatment and better disease management, according to the Rutgers investigators, whose miniaturized electrochemical sensor accurately measures nitrite in exhaled breath condensate using reduced graphene oxide. Reduced graphene oxide resists corrosion, has superior electrical properties, and is very accurate in detecting biomarkers. Graphene is a thin layer of the graphite used in pencils.

“Nitrite level in breath condensate is a promising biomarker for inflammation in the respiratory tract. Having a rapid, easy method to measure it can help an asthmatic determine if air pollutants are affecting them so they can better manage use of medication and physical activity,” said Clifford Weisel, Ph.D., study co-author and professor at Rutgers' Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI). “It could also be used in a physician's office and emergency departments to monitor the effectiveness of various anti-inflammatory drugs to optimize treatment.”

The next step is to develop a portable, wearable system, which could be commercially available within 5 years. The researchers also envision expanding the number of inflammation biomarkers a device could detect and measure.

“In the U.S. alone, allergy inflammation, asthma, and various respiratory conditions are all on the rise, so devices that can help diagnose, monitor, and manage these conditions will be in high demand,” said Dr. Javanmard.

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