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February 2009 Issue

Jonathan Bernstein, MD (left), and Anastasios Angelopoulos, PhD, are shown working on allergy research at the University of Cincinnati.
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UC-Based Invention May Detect Hazardous Air Quality

By Angela Koenig
Published February 2009

A collaboration between UC’s colleges of medicine and engineering could result in a revolutionary on-site testing device that detects airborne hazards in real-time environments, allowing for rapid response to unacceptable air quality levels.

Currently under a provisional patent, the device is a dye-based membrane sensor designed to change colors as surrounding air quality fluctuates. The color change triggers an electrical circuit which sets off an alarm.

The prototype will be presented to Ohio legislators at a mini-showcase in Columbus on Feb. 18 by its UC inventors: Jonathan Bernstein, MD, professor of medicine in the immunology/allergy division, and Anastasios Angelopoulos, PhD, assistant professor in the department of chemical and materials engineering.

“The purpose is to provide an immediate warning that there is a hazardous level of exposure,” says Angelopoulos, adding that currently when a potentially hazardous situation does occur, such as a chemical spill, air samples are taken to remote labs to determine exposure levels, which can cause a substantial delay in evaluating air quality.

The new device, he says, could be wall mounted or worn individually and powered by battery or plugged into an electrical socket.

“This device addresses the significant unmet need of personal exposure monitoring in and out of the workplace,” says Bernstein. “It’s anticipated that this device will provide a more accurate assessment of environmental exposure to a spectrum of potentially toxic and/or sensitizing chemicals. Having this real-time information will allow employers to more readily improve indoor air quality, thereby creating a safer and healthier workplace environment.”

The prototype—tentatively called a “real-time continuous online monitor”—is designed for the industrial market to detect trimellitic anhydride (TMA), a chemical used in the manufacture of plastics. The device could, however, provide a platform for future broad-based applicability, both inventors say.

For example, an accumulation of platinum in the body is a potential health hazard; therefore the device could be configured to detect unsafe levels of platinum in the environment. It could also be configured to measure inflammatory markers in a breath of exhaled air to determine if an asthma attack may be forthcoming, they say.

“The basis for our selection of the chemical hazards currently being studied is what air quality concerns are most pressing at the moment,” says Angelopoulos, adding that he relies on Bernstein’s years of clinical expertise to channel their efforts.

Dan Kanter, MD, director of the biotechnology development program at UC, initially connected Angelopoulos and Bernstein. The program is funded by the UC Office of Research as a way to identify promising technologies.

“I often try and find people like Jon who are clinicians with ideas and partner them with other faculty members who have the technical skills to meet the need identified by the clinicians,” says Kanter.

Although a small amount of departmental funds got the project started, the majority of development funds—$40,000—came from CincyTech, a regional technology initiative supported by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the state of Ohio’s Third Frontier Project.

“It was a very competitive grant proposal and they are both such highly credible individuals. We would like to see more applications such as these coming out of the research institutions here,” says Dorothy Air, PhD, associate senior vice president in UC’s research office and CincyTech vice president of operations .

Of the 11 “Imagining” grants bestowed by CincyTech in 2008, she says five went to UC researchers, including this one.

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