Nanotech chip aims to give medical diagnosis in minutes

7 Feb 2019

Red blood cells. Image: © pinkeyes/

TechWatch’s Emily McDaid talks to Causeway Sensors’ Dr Bob Pollard about how his company is using nanotech to speed up patient diagnoses.

If you see your doctor with an unexplained disease, they may want to take your blood. The sample will be sent to a central laboratory for processing, involving culturing the blood, in a procedure that may take days or longer.

But, for a disease such as sepsis, your mortality increases by 8pc every hour – meaning that you could be dead by the time results are back.

A company called Causeway Sensors has discovered nanotechnology that can speed up your diagnosis. The technology is so groundbreaking it’s difficult for even physics PhD students to understand it, according to the founders.

Causeway’s scientists-turned-entrepreneurs have created a new type of nanosurface. The surface resides on a chip not a million miles away from the chip on your bank card. It’s used with next-generation diagnostic equipment that hits the chip with light rays and measures the reflected signal.

The nanostructures have a unique ability to focus light beyond the diffraction limit. This makes them very sensitive to small biological entities (eg proteins or antibodies) attaching to their surface. A biological entity binding to the chip changes the amount of light reflected back to the detector, creating a highly sensitive diagnostic platform.

schematic of new nanosurface, with rainbow-coloured disc on the left and close-up of surface on the right, similar to chips on a bank card.

Schematic of the nanosurface. Image: TechWatch

“The increased sensitivity from the chip improves diagnostic outcomes. Faster diagnosis, and diagnosis closer to the patient, are the end goals,” says Dr Bob Pollard, founder and CEO.

Traditional culturing has long involved the optical measurement of antibody-antigen interactions. This new invention makes those signals far stronger, which can also push the boundaries of what can currently be detected today.

Based on the promise of this innovation, Causeway Sensors has successfully raised £1.7m in two rounds of investment led by Kernel Capital over 18 months. The company originally spun out of Queen’s University Belfast. In 2018, the company was named one of the 100 Hot Start-ups in Ireland by The Sunday Business Post.

grey-haired smiling man wearing striped shirt and dark grey blazer against blurry office background.

Dr Bob Pollard. Image: TechWatch

I ask Pollard what exactly the company sells.

He says: “We’ve switched focus over the past year or so. At present we’re developing both the chip and the detection equipment. The cool bit is the light interaction with the nanostructure – and we’re now able to manufacture these chips at the nanoscale for the first time.”

Is it being used anywhere presently? What sort of diseases could it help diagnose?

Pollard says: “They’re using our technology at the CCRCB in Belfast, located behind City Hospital, where testing is being done on both prostate and pancreatic cancers. We’re also working with researchers in Dublin at Trinity Translational Institute (St James’s Hospital), where they’re reviewing using our chip surfaces to look at different biomarkers found in the blood. In particular, they’re monitoring how patients respond to treatments for sepsis, which requires testing the levels of immunoglobulin.”

The biosensor market, of which Causeway is a new entrant, is predicted to be worth $22bn globally by 2020. To aid the company to move into this market, Causeway is embarking on the new Way to Scale programme, covered in this previous article.

Pollard says: “We’d like to be a globally scaling company based out of Northern Ireland. The Way to Scale programme, kicking off at MIT, should help us focus on how to extract value out of this technology, fine-tuning our business model to scale faster.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland