Future Students

T-shirt That Can Detect Disease


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Interview with Christa Brosseau, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Saint Mary’s University

Dr. Christa Brosseau is an Associate Professor of Chemistry. She is a “surface scientist” whose area of expertise is plasmonics, which is the interaction between nano-materials and light. Her research and work in this field has resulted in the development of an amazing diagnostic technology that includes t-shirts that can monitor health and even detect disease.

We spoke to Dr. Brosseau to learn more about “t-shirts of the future” as well as other ways her work has been applied to health diagnostics and even art preservation.

“T-shirts that can detect disease” sounds so futuristic. Can you explain what you do and how you use fabrics as a diagnostic tool?

I am an analytical chemist, which means I am interested in the science of chemical measurement. When you measure chemicals, one of the things you can do is look for chemical markers of disease. And when you are working with nanomaterials, it allows for ultrasensitive detection of disease biomarkers. In our recent work, we looked at incorporating metal nanoparticles into woven textiles. These textiles can absorb bodily fluids, such as sweat, and by scanning the treated fabric, we can get a fingerprint of what molecules are contained in the sweat. We can screen these fingerprints and look for markers of disease.

What sort of diseases can you detect with this technology?

There is a big need for rapid diagnosis of disease in developing nations. So recently we partnered with a research team in South Africa to develop a rapid diagnostic test for tuberculosis at the patient point-of-care. Currently it can take up to 16 weeks for a person in rural South Africa to receive a diagnosis of TB. With this technology we can shorten that time to less than 30 minutes. The faster a disease can be detected and treated, the less chance it has to make the person ill or spread to others.

So this technology can detect disease but can it also be used to monitor health?

Absolutely. Imagine you are wearing a t-shirt made of nanomaterial while you exercise. It absorbs your sweat from which we can read the data and analyse it for different bio-markers for stress and dehydration, for example. E-textiles, which monitor physical parameters such as heart rate and blood pressure, are already on the market. Measurement of chemical parameters is the logical next step. We are also interested in making this technology sustainable; at the moment we are exploring sustainable fabrics such as bamboo and hemp.

What do you love best about teaching at Saint Mary’s?

One of the things I like best is watching that “A-ha!” moment for a student. The moment when suddenly a concept that was difficult to grasp makes all the sense in the world. I also enjoy being in the lab with the students, which is something the larger universities don’t usually have (professors who are also lab instructors). Since I am in the classroom and the lab as well, I can really help the students draw connections between theory and practice.

It sounds like Saint Mary’s really encourages a “hands-on” approach to learning.

Yes. Saint Mary’s is excellent at providing research opportunities for undergraduate students. Often, students are able to enter into research labs after their first year, which is amazing. We also have an excellent graduate student training program and students have access to state-of-the-art tools, like our field emission scanning electron microscope, an indispensable tool in nanomaterials research.

What is the advantage for students being able to conduct research so early in their studies?

When they start doing research that early, it means that by the time they finish their degree, they are already quite established researchers with enormous skill sets. I had an honours student who was working on a fabric chip biomarker sensor and she actually published several first-author articles before she even graduated, and she won a national award to present her research at a conference in BC. This really helped to boost her application for medical school. That’s a great undergrad research success story.

We’ve talked about the disease detection side of your work as a chemical analyst, but you have also worked in the world of art preservation.

Yes, I have also been involved in the analysis of art and historical objects to answer questions like “What is this pigment and why has it faded?” When conservators know what materials were used in the original piece, it helps them preserve art for future generations. I also have worked on several cases where the authenticity of an artifact had been called into question; materials analysis of such objects often holds the answer.

That must be exciting for you to be able to apply your research to two very different fields.

Yes, and this is also the kind of thing that draws students into science. A student might have an interest in art or archeology, but not in physical science – or so they think. However, when they learn how chemistry can help them understand and preserve artifacts, it ignites a desire to combine the two fields and opens up a whole new world of research for them.

Finally, are there any other really cool, futuristic applications of nanotechnology that you are currently working on or can see becoming a reality in the not-too-distant future?

This field of nanoscience has endless, exciting possibilities and applications and will someday, hopefully, lead to innovations such as ultrasensitive cancer detection and targeted therapy, ultrafast computing and even invisibility cloaks. The future is big, and the path to it is nanoscale!