A wearable sensor printed on microbial nanocellulose, a natural polymer, has been created in Brazil by researchers at the University of São Paulo (USP) in São Carlos in collaboration with colleagues at São Paulo State University (UNESP) in Araraquara, the University of Araraquara (UNIARA), the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), and the Brazilian National Nanotechnology Laboratory (LNNano).

Applied to skin as a piece of sticking plaster, the device developed by Brazilian researchers can be used to monitor human metabolism and administer drugs. (Credit: Robson Rosa da Silva)

The skin-adherent sensor is an improved substitute for conventional sensors printed on plastic surfaces. It can be used for noninvasive detection and monitoring of body fluids present in sweat.

The study was led by Osvaldo Novais de Oliveira Junior and supported by FAPESP via the projects “Printed and implantable biosensors made from biopolymers for long-term monitoring,” “Design and fabrication of nanostructured flexible devices for biomarker detection,” and “Development of analytical tools based on electronic tongues for simultaneous detection of bacterial threats,” as well as a Multiuser Equipment grant.

A paper titled “Microbial nanocellulose adherent to human skin used in electrochemical sensors to detect metal ions and biomarkers in sweat,” was published in the journal Talanta.

“Microbial nanocellulose is a 100 percent natural polymer. It is produced by bacteria from sugar. Its main advantage over plastic is its far better interface with human skin. It’s been commercially available for some years for use in wound dressings, among other applications, but it had never before been studied as an electrochemical sensor substrate,” says Robson Rosa da Silva, a co-first author on the paper.

The detection units are printed on the microbial nanocellulose substrate using a semiautomatic screen printer and a paste with a high concentration of carbon particles. (Credit: Talanta, Vol 218, Oct. 2020)

One of the problems with wearable sensors on plastic substrates is that perspiration forms a barrier between the skin and sensor, hindering detection and promoting allergies. “Nanocellulose is totally breathable, enabling sweat to reach the electrode’s active layer,” Silva says.

The sensor is a small adhesive rectangle 1.5 cm in length by 0.5 cm in width and is as thin as a sheet of tissue paper. It can detect a range of biomarkers, such as sodium, potassium, uric acid, lactic acid, and glucose, among others.

“These elements or substances circulate in the bloodstream and are also detectable in sweat. Therefore, diabetes monitoring is one possible application of the nanocellulose sensor. Another is hormone control in women via detection of the hormone estradiol,” Silva says.

The detection units are printed on the microbial nanocellulose substrate using a semiautomatic screen printer and a paste with a high concentration of carbon particles. Carbon is preferred owing to its significant electrical conductivity (see Figure 1). “Chemical oxidation-reduction reactions produce an electrical signal that measures the concentration of the metabolite of interest,” explains Paulo Augusto Raymundo Pereira, the other co-first author.

“The sensor is connected to a potentiostat that makes electrochemical measurements by means of variations in the electric current. The data obtained are transmitted to a computer and converted into standard curves.”

According to Pereira, wireless communication between the sensor and a data measuring and reading device can easily be engineered.

The researchers are now studying the use of the sensor to administer drugs and are working on ways of making it commercially feasible. The first phase of the project, “Fabrication of screen-printed electrodes on biodegradable substrates (nanocellulose and onion films Allium cepa L.) for medical, food, and agro-industrial applications,” conducted by Biosmart Nanotechnology, was supported by FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business (PIPE) Program.

This article was written by José Tadeu Arantes, Agência FAPESP. For more information, visit here .