Global fight against hepatitis boosted by UK and China research collaboration on new graphene sensor for swifter diagnosis

Researchers from institutions in China and the UK, including Swansea University, are collaborating on a project to develop a graphene-based sensor, which aims to provide an easy, low-cost way of diagnosing hepatitis on-the-spot.

Owen Guy The two-year, multi-partner project, which is funded by the UK’s Newton Fund and led by Swansea-based BIOVICI, developing the next generation of point-of-care (POC) diagnostic devices, brings together the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK’s National Measurement Institute; the University of Chongqing; Swansea University’s Centre for NanoHealth; and industry partner CTN.

[Pictured left: Professor Owen Guy, Director (Engineering) at Swansea University’s Centre for NanoHealth.]

Hepatitis is a huge global health problem, with nearly 400 million people worldwide affected, resulting in over 1.4 million deaths per year. The World Health Organisation has reported that 257 million people are infected with hepatitis B alone. 

Those affected with hepatitis suffer chronic infection, resulting in one million deaths per annum from liver cirrhosis and cancer, with 40% of those deaths occurring in China.

Graphene is a 2D material with unique electrical and mechanical properties, which derive from its one-atom-thick structure; its characteristics make it ideal for sensor applications, including those used for medical diagnosis. To date, graphene electrochemical biosensors have been developed predominantly for detection of single biomarkers.

The new sensor will be the first to target a simultaneous test for three types of hepatitis – A, B and C – out of the five types that exist.  The test will be simple and rapid, similar to a blood glucose sensor or pregnancy test, but will test the patient’s saliva instead of blood.

The current screening method for hepatitis through blood testing has challenges, as the technique is invasive; results can take five to seven days, during which patients are still contagious and therefore a risk to the non-infected; and it is also expensive, as it requires medical personnel.

It is anticipated the new device will have significant impact in countries with a high incidence of this highly infectious liver disease, such as in China, with the sensor helping to prevent the spread of hepatitis by speeding up its diagnosis and treatment.

While each of the five partners involved in the project has a different role, all of their activities are required in combination for the effective development of this new technology.

The two Chinese partners, CTN and Chongqing University, are responsible for graphene device production and manufacturing. On the characterisation side, NPL is carrying out electrical characterisation and testing, while Swansea University’s Centre for NanoHealth is conducting chemical characterisation.  BIOVICI is responsible for the device’s packaging and commercialisation, and it is estimated that if the sensor is produced in large quantities, each device could cost as little as £1 GBP.

Professor Owen Guy, Director (Engineering) at Swansea University’s Centre for NanoHealth, said: “Using semiconductor process technology applied to graphene enables us to make low-cost sensors. With the right lab-on-chip technology, there is the potential to develop sensors for a host of diagnostic and screening applications.”

Paul Morgan, Chief Executive at BIOVICI, said: “This collaboration between NPL, Swansea University’s Centre for NanoHealth and our partners in China opens a unique opportunity to develop a low-cost, affordable test, which will bring major benefits to the global fight against the spread of this highly infectious disease.

“Many people associate hepatitis as a problem that happens elsewhere and not in their home country. However, hepatitis is a global epidemic which is rapidly affecting parts of the UK, throughout Europe and the USA.”

Dr Olga Kazakova, Principle Research Scientist in Advanced Materials at NPL, said: “Graphene’s unique characteristics mean it has great potential to be used in a variety of sensing applications. In addition to hepatitis, it could be used in other similar tests, including allergen sensors, pollutant identification and other life sciences applications.

“It is imperative for us to understand the exact characteristics of the material to be able to assess how it can be manufactured and used in these different applications. This is a key focus for us and the National Graphene Metrology Centre at NPL supports the commercialisation and application of the advanced material by conducting world-leading research into its measurement and characterisation.

“Through this research, we are working to develop international standards for graphene which will help to unlock new applications for the incredible material.”