Irish researcher developing ‘biology-friendly’ sensors

6 Mar 2015

Prof Róisín Owens is now based in the Center for Microelectronics at the Ecole des Mines de St. Etienne in France

Prof Róisín Owens is building sensors that integrate the power of biology, chemistry, physics and electronics.

Biology, chemistry and physics may be different subjects in school, but for many researchers, combining them makes sense. And for Prof Róisín Owens, the combination is helping her to build ‘biology-friendly’ bioelectronic sensors to measure activities in living cells and tissues.

The Dublin native, based in the Center for Microelectronics at the Ecole des Mines de Saint-Etienne in France, has just been awarded a €150,000 ‘Proof of Concept’ (PoC) grant by the EU’s European Research Council to further her work on how organic electrochemical transistors, or OECTs, can be used to sense changes in biological systems.

Organic electronics are now well known, with applications such as OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes) and organic photovoltaics, explains Owens. “In about 2000, people said let’s take this technology and couple it with biology, and a whole new field called organic bioelectronics was born.”

Owens’ husband, George Malliaras is a renowned researcher in the field of bioelectronics, and Owens, a biochemist by training, developed an interest in using the technology to push biosensing and biomedical devices.

“When I saw some of the materials they were using and some of the characteristics, the great performance they were getting out of their devices I said I want to use these new materials,” she says.

Material advantages

One of the major advantages that organic electronics offer for biosensing is that they are soft, so they tend to ‘fit’ well with biological samples, she explains. Another is that they conduct both electrons (important for the electronic component of sensing) and ions (important for the biological system being sensed).

In 2011, Owens was awarded a Starting ERC grant to couple an OECT-based sensing device with living cells and tissues of interest for testing for infection, or for testing compounds such as potential drugs or toxins.

Her group looked at whether they could sense signals from ‘barrier tissues’ in the gut.

“We started putting this kind of tissue on the device and we were able to measure it very sensitively – and even more, we found we could monitor any kind of tissue that will stick to a surface, we could look at that really sensitively,” she says. “And the icing on the cake is that these materials are optically transparent, so we can look through them, we can label (where molecules are) in the cells and get the electronic readout, too.”

Translating tech

The ERC Proof of Concept grant will now allow her group to explore the potential for translating their findings into a widely applicable device on the market.

“We want to (see) can we take a tech from the lab and bring it into the commercial domain,” she says. “We think it looks cool and people are interested in it, but now we really need that business and marketing analysis. We will build a nice prototype to be able to show people but most of the grant is looking at the potential for patenting the potential for marketing, what kind of a niche can we fill.”

Owens reckons that the approach could help in the drive to reduce levels of testing potential therapies and toxins in animals, and she points to the benefits of being able to use ethically-sourced cultured human cells, which may be more relevant for testing for human populations. The system also holds potential benefits for environmental and infection monitoring, she adds, and they are testing it to screen for fungal contamination in wine.

Moulding around biology

Owens, from Glasnevin, initially studied biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, and spent one of those summers on an Erasmus-funded programme in France. “I think that’s probably one of the reasons I work in France now,” she says. “I really liked it.”

But she made a few other stops first: a PhD in the University of Southampton looking at the food poisoning bug E. coli 0157 was followed by research in the United States on tuberculosis.

While at Cornell University, Owens started to become more interested in the technology of biomedical devices.

“I found myself increasingly asking how would we improve these devices, get better output,” she says. “I worked in a start-up for awhile and that exposed me to a more industrial way of looking at technology – can you take something from the lab and bring it to a commercial application.”

She and Malliaras moved to France in 2009, setting up the a new department of bioelectronics at the Provence campus of Center for Microelectronics at the Ecole des Mines de Saint-Etienne.

Today her work bridges the disciplines of biology, chemistry, physics and engineering, and she stresses the importance of understanding how the technology needs to mould around the needs of the biology being researched.

“Biology is very complex, you have to do (measurements) lots of times so you have statistics,” she says. “And the physicists and the biologists need to be friends, to listen to each other and then they can do wonders.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication