Just as glucose meters have revolutionized the treatment of diabetes, researchers at a startup called Aneeve Nanotechnologies believe they’re building hormone sensors that could revolutionize the understanding and treatment of infertility, menopause, and other conditions related to hormone fluctuation.
Aneeve is part of a new technology incubator program at the University of California at Los Angeles. The company is working to create low-cost sensors that can be made with off-the-shelf ink-jet printers and carbon-nanotube ink. The printers lay down nanotube circuits that, upon binding to the estrogen protein estradiol, undergo a change to their resistance and optical properties and transmit that change via radio waves to another device. The company’s chief operating officer, Kosmas Galatsis says he hopes the result will be a system as convenient as glucose meters.
Currently, there’s no easy and inexpensive method to regularly test fluctuations in a woman’s hormone levels. “There’s a glucose meter, but no hormone meter to help people keep their hormones at a desired level,” Galatsis says. Researchers conducting clinical trials, or physicians trying to determine fertility rhythms, for example, require blood samples to be collected at a lab on a daily or twice-daily basis. But with a simple, use-from-home monitor, a woman could keep close tabs on her hormone levels by pricking her finger and depositing a drop of blood on a disposable carbon-nanotube strip. “If a couple can’t get pregnant, they can monitor their hormone levels over several months and try to fertilize when their hormone levels are optimal,” he says.
The scientists at Aneeve also believe that such a device could help researchers better understand menopause and determine when hormone-replacement therapy might be beneficial. “Having a cheap, pennies-on-the-test type of monitoring that’s accurate and measures multiple parameters may open up more research in that area,” says Kumar Duraiswamy, a physician and MBA candidate involved with the project. Right now, he says, “It’s not easy or convenient or cheap for women to go into a testing center.”
Galatsis notes that this is just the first application to emerge from a technology platform they hope will have broad uses. The platform is based on research by UCLA nanotechnology researcher Kang Wang and colleague Chongwu Zhou at the University of Southern California. “Our novelty is low-cost, print-anywhere-anytime, off-the-shelf technology,” Galatsis says. “We can convert any ink-jet printer just by changing the cartridge [to carbon nanotube ink], so we can print any type of sensors, and make RF circuits, right here.”
With funding from DARPA the group decided to focus first on monitoring estrogen and other hormones because there appeared to be a gaping need. So far, they’ve shown that their sensors are capable of sensing estrogen, but are only accurate to the level of nanograms per milliliter. In order to be effective with a single finger prick, that sensitivity needs to be improved by an order of magnitude (to picograms per milliliter).
The combination of technologies being used by Aneeve is “quite compelling,” says Jerome Lynch, an engineer at the University of Michigan. He notes that the company’s innovation lies in integrating multiple technologies that others have explored individually. “And they’re exploiting technologies that are cost-effective. When others have tried it, they’ve looked more at the proof-of-concept level, whereas [Aneeve] is looking more at commercial viability and scalability in the marketplace.”
Nicholas Kotov, a nanotechnology and chemical engineer at the University of Michigan, agrees that it’s the combination of numerous technologies that makes the project important. “The use of ink-jet printing technology for sensing, and particularly hormones, is interesting,” he says.
Ultimately, the researchers hope to build a small device that can be plugged into a smart phone and can translate data from the carbon-nanotube sensor strips into a log that helps users, and their physicians, keep track of the information. At the moment, Aneeve’s “lab” consists of little more than a bare benchtop inside the UCLA incubator facility. But use of the incubator’s clean lab, printing, and other facilities has eliminated the need for the startup to purchase its own equipment. “Our next steps are to further optimize the sensing platform,” Galatsis says, adding that they aim to have a working prototype in 18 months.