Dr. Sabrina Heng, University of Adelaide researcher. (Credit: CNBP)

A new zinc sensor has been developed that will allow for a deeper understanding of the dynamic roles that metal ions play in regulating health and disease in the living body.

The research reports that the newly designed chemical sensor can detect and measure zinc levels in cells. It also has the functionality and portability to take continuous or repeated measurements within a single biological sample.

Researchers say that this makes the sensor potentially suitable for use in future diagnostic tools that could open up entirely new windows into the body. Metal ions, including zinc, play crucial roles in cellular and life function — and a deficiency or change in the level of metal ions is often associated with disease.

One part of the sensor is a special chemical molecule, spiropyran, which sits on an advanced optical fiber, is tailored to bind onto the zinc ion in the cells that are being examined. When the zinc is bound it fluoresces after it’s been exposed to UV light from the fiber. The fluorescence intensity is dependent on the amount of zinc that is present.

This new CNBP sensor could offer the ability for instant analysis of zinc levels within the body, without the need to wait for time consuming test results from specialist diagnostic laboratories. Real-time diagnosis means less time-delay in treatment for patients.