College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

ECpE engineer published for Alzheimer’s-testing device

Alzheimer’s disease is a prominent concern, present in the lives of millions. Currently, the main diagnostic methods for treating this disease are neuroimaging techniques, which include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography and single-photon emission computed tomography. But these methods suffer from their high cost, requirement of skilled personnel to operate and long turnaround time.

Long Que, associate professor and researcher in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University, has recently developed a device that can determine if a person potentially has Alzheimer’s disease along with Dr. Pan Deng, a neurologist and Chao Song, a PhD student in electrical engineering. The detection of Que’s work recently has been published in a leading journal, Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.

This device, a label-free nanosensor, examines the levels of two biomarkers in a person’s cerebrospinal fluid(CSF): Beta-amyloid and total-tau. When someone has Alzheimer’s Disease, beta-amyloid levels in CSF are lower and total-tau levels are higher than the average person’s levels. Recent research discovered that beta-amyloid levels in a person’s blood can be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

“The device will make it much easier for patients to access the levels of the biomarkers in their CSF and blood, so easy that eventually they will be able to measure it at home,” Que said. “You can simply take a drop of blood from your finger and drop it onto the chip if you have this kind of nanosensor.”

Once blood flows through the chip, a signal will be detected if the biomarker levels are abnormal. Right now, Que and his team are working to create a way to detect the signal in a cost-effective manner. The next step in this project is finding a way to allow people to detect signals at home, potentially via phone.

“In the future we will have a signal-reading interface on a smartphone, and that way you simply hover your phone above the device to detect a signal, making it more suitable for point-of-care (POC) application,” Que said. “The signal from the device will let you know if one possibly has Alzheimer’s disease by measuring this person’s blood.”

Given its high sensitivity and specificity, the device can serve as a POC equipment for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, if the device detects the changes of the biomarkers’ levels, it is a good indication that further tests are required, making the neuroimaging tool the next step in the patient’s diagnosis and treatment. By using this device, significant costs and time can be saved for patients, achieving more accurate diagnostics in a rapid and inexpensive way.

“This type of device can be made so cheap, it will be disposable. You can use it once and then throw it away,” Que said. “Given it’s low cost and ease-of-operation, this type of device can be used as a powerful POC diagnostic tool combined with the neuroimaging tool, such as MRI.”

Eventually, more reliable biomarkers could be combined together. The biomarkers can then be screened very cost effectively and quickly, while also accurately screened.

With this device, patients can simply go to their nearest market or drugstore and test their biomarker levels at home. Que says early detection is key. 

“Many people suffer from this disease,” Que said. “If we can achieve the early detection, people can be treated at an early stage even before the symptoms begin.”