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Your Environment. Your Health.

Enabling Community Science through a Point-of-Care Sensor to Detect Toxic Heavy Metals

Erin Haynes, Dr.P.H. and Ian Papautsky, Ph.D.

June 17, 2016

Point of Care Sensor

Picture of the point-of-care sensor technology.
(Photo courtesy of University of Cincinnati)

Conventional methods for measuring heavy metal exposure in humans are often expensive, resource intensive, and time-consuming. A portable, point-of-care sensor developed by NIEHS grantees, Erin Haynes, Dr.P.H., and Ian Papautsky, Ph.D., at the University of Cincinnati’s (UC) Center for Environmental Genetics, may enable a faster, more cost-effective assessment of toxic heavy metals in blood.

Motivation to develop the point-of-care sensor grew out of a UC study exploring the health effects of manganese and lead among at-risk populations in Marietta, Ohio. Manganese levels are high in Marietta because it is home to a manganese refinery and lead levels have also been a problem in the community.

How the sensor works

Dr. Erin Hayes and Dr. Ian Papautsky

Erin Hayes, Dr.P.H., and Ian Papautsky, Ph.D., pictured holding the point-of-care sensor.
(Photo courtesy of University of Cincinnati)

The low-cost, disposable point-of-care sensor provides real-time feedback about the presence and levels of heavy metals – specifically manganese and lead – in blood and water, and works faster than current technologies available in most health-care settings.

Additionally, the sensor requires just a few drops of blood or water, rather than the several millimeters required for conventional testing methods. Blood is collected through a single finger prick, similar to a glucose assessment or allergy test, which minimizes patient discomfort and helps facilitate multiple measurements. Similarly, only a few drops of water are needed for metals analysis.

According to Papautsky, the sensor can report a range of manganese levels in the low parts per billion (ppb) range, and between 5 ppb – 50 ppb for lead. “The Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead in drinking water is 15 ppb, so our device can detect lead levels at least three times below the EPA guideline,” Papautsky said.

Assisting people in at-risk communities

“Parents would bring their children to our research clinic wanting to know if their child had been exposed to dangerous levels of toxicants, like lead or manganese; however, because it was a research study, it would take several months before the blood metal concentration levels were made available,” Haynes said. “This presents a real issue, because if we did find elevated levels, it delayed vital public health interventions.”

The sensor addresses this exposure assessment challenge by providing fast feedback. According to Haynes, real-time data collection would provide rapid report-back to concerned families and public health officials.

“For example, the sensor could detect contamination in public drinking water supplies, such as drinking water in Flint, Michigan,” said Haynes. “In addition, the sensor could be used to quickly detect elevated blood lead levels in children, which could expedite public health interventions.”

Advancing public health and community science

Since the point-of-care sensor can be operated safely and effectively by people without specialized training, Haynes and Papautsky envision the sensor being used not only in research settings, but also as an innovative tool for community-driven science to monitor drinking water supplies.

By putting this tool into the hands of local stakeholders, Haynes and Papautsky hope to empower community members and health care professionals to collect quality exposure data, and to encourage them to use and communicate the data in a way that’s understandable and action-oriented.

Moving from the lab to the field

Within the next two to three years, the sensor will undergo initial field testing – first on adults, then on children – to prove its safety and efficacy.

Eventually, Haynes and Papautsky seek to scale-up the sensor’s technology to help researchers expand epidemiological studies and improve exposure assessment. They also hope to encourage individual clinics to use this technology.

It’s envisioned that the sensor will also be used in point-of-care devices that provide needed feedback on heavy-metal levels, and will have the potential for large-scale use in clinical, occupational, and research settings. Haynes and Papautsky would also like to expand the sensor’s capacity to measure other toxic heavy metals in blood, including arsenic, mercury, copper, and cadmium.

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