Virginia Tech researcher receives $400,000 NSF grant to develop new skin scent sampler

Human skin is the largest organ in the body. It also protects internal living tissues and other organs, regulates body temperature, and even metabolizes vitamin D. Studies suggest that skin diseases alter the molecular and microbial composition of human skin, making it a rich source of information about our physical health.

Masoud Agah, a professor at the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium, founding director of Virginia Nanotechnology Networked Infrastructure, and a researcher in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, has received a grant of nearly $400,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that aims to develop a new skin scent sampler. Agah will collaborate with Irish researchers to develop this new biomedical device.

The proposed skin scent sampler, named SenSorp, will have the ability to monitor the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) collected in real time. Cutaneous VOCs, present on the surface of the skin, are derived from the secretions of the glands and their interactions with external microorganisms. They can provide insight into an individual’s health and offer a non-invasive way to probe the biochemistry of the body. Tests of skin gland secretions have detected more than 500 compounds, including aldehydes (often used as plant and vegetable insecticides), carboxylic acids, alcohols, ketones, and derivatives of ammonia or amines.

Recent research has highlighted the link between volatile compounds in the skin and the potential passage of compounds from blood vessels, dietary influences, and age-related metabolic activity. Additionally, research has shown that dogs have the olfactory ability to detect the presence of COVID-19 from the body’s volatile emissions. Therefore, researchers have identified the skin and VOCs as important resources when it comes to identifying health issues and detecting certain diseases.

The Sensorp skin scent sampler, together with its smart key, which measures the VOCs collected in real time, notifies the user via a mobile application when the skin scent collection is complete. This communication is carried out by the integrated electronic circuit of the device.

The ultimate goal of this new skin sensor parallels that of a home COVID test. Consumers expect minimally invasive, affordable and convenient options for their healthcare needs. Devices like Sensorp address this need and are beneficial in reducing the burden on healthcare providers and hospital systems.

SenSorp allows caregivers, parents of sick children and clinicians in nursing homes, among others, to administer the test and send the test kit to a laboratory for analysis.

Agah has over 20 years of experience applying electrical and computer engineering concepts to biomedical engineering research projects. For this project, the head of the Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems faculty will contribute to the design and manufacture of these new devices. Specifically, Agah will develop SenSorp’s unique 3D printed packaging with a twist-lock mechanism as well as the SenSorp auto-injector module, which will release the collected sample as a pointed plug into chromatography systems by gas phase. Once these two pieces of equipment are made, Agah will send them to the other members of the team.

This collaborative research project draws on the expertise of two Irish university researchers. Co-Principal Investigator Hamza Shakeel is an Assistant Professor in the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s University Belfast. He is familiar with gas sensors of micro-electromechanical systems and will help assess VOCs emitted through the skin and absorbed by SenSorp. Additionally, Shakeel will participate in the development and evaluation of the future wearable device, including proposed signal conditioning and Bluetooth transmission of data to a laptop or smartphone.

Shakeel, a former PhD student of Agah, graduated from Virginia Tech’s electrical and computer engineering department in 2015. Agah said he was excited about the opportunity to work with Shakeel in a new position.

“He is the inventor of some of the technologies that we have developed here at Virginia Tech that we will use in this research,” Agah said. “He’s working on low-cost sensors for gas monitoring, and we thought this would be a great opportunity to start a new kind of collaboration. The NSF-funded project uses our technology for skin odor collection and uses his sensor to determine how long this collection of odors should continue.”

Aoife Morrin, Co-Principal Investigator, is Associate Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the School of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University. She is an expert in the field of chemical sensors and materials chemistry for biomedical and environmental applications, in particular epidermal sensors. For this research project, Morrin will validate Sensorp technology as a reliable skin odor sampler to differentiate human odors by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry analysis. She is excited about the impact this research will have on improving global health.

The prospect of finding new biomarkers that we can collect non-invasively from our skin is very enticing -; it has the potential to take on a huge challenge in health diagnostics today. I look forward to working with Masoud and the team in Belfast to see what and how we can contribute collaboratively to this exciting field.”


Aoife Morrin, Co-Principal Investigator

Several electrical and computer engineering graduate students are also participating in the project and have enjoyed gaining hands-on experience throughout the research process. Nipun Thamatam is a graduate research assistant in electrical engineering and works directly with Agah on the Sensorp project. Its main objective will be to work on microfabricated preconcentrators which collect samples at very low concentration to make them detectable.

“Dr. Agah routinely expresses what a device could be or do in 10 years instead of what it will be soon,” Thamatam said. “Our conversations inspire me to think more deeply about the problem rather than limiting myself to a single solution. His appreciation and support for innovation gives me great creative freedom to execute new and unconventional ideas.”

In the coming years, Agah and her team hope to use this same technology to tap into the wearable medical device market, which is expected to reach $196 billion by 2030, according to Grand View Research. The goal is to eventually develop a wearable semiconductor chip that collects the smell of our skin for a period of time. The collected smell can then be analyzed using sophisticated laboratory equipment or low-cost sensors to detect changes in signs of possible physical or mental illness.

In addition to the proposed research and development of this new skin sensor, Agah and her team will create demonstrations of the system as part of the educational outreach of the Virginia Tech Pre-College Initiative program, run by the College of Engineering’s Center for the Enhancement. of Engineering Diversity. The goal of these skin sensor models is to introduce high school students to advanced science and engineering and help them make connections to how these disciplines can be merged to solve real-world problems.

Agah envisions a day in the future when shoppers can use one of these semiconductor skin patches at their local pharmacy or grocery store.

“Imagine – while you’re shopping, it collects your skin odor, then you can insert it into a micro gas chromatograph for instant analysis,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we need access to new technologies that we can develop rapidly, deploy in mass, and then use those technologies to monitor our individual health and prevent the spread of disease. This research is a call directly to these challenges.”