Small tools have a big impact in the age of self-diagnosis

Leyla Soleymani has done big work in health sciences—on a very small scale.

The associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Miniaturized Biomedical Devices in McMaster’s Department of Engineering Physics has been fascinated with nanotech since her days as a grad student at U of T.

“When you think of engineering innovation in health sciences, you think MRI, endoscopy, robots. This was completely different. It wasn’t big and splashy but there were interesting things happening at the molecular scale. Materials at the nano-scale and those interfaces and surfaces can do such amazing things.”

Soleymani was fascinated with how materials behaved at the molecular level and could see the potential for the technology to save lives. She was inspired to pursue research in health sciences engineering.

Soleymani’s work is with biosensors—sensors which react to biological materials. Those materials could be anything from enzymes in soil to cancer cells in the body. It’s a growing field: the estimated global market for biosensors is about $24 billion, 30 per cent of which is in health care.

Soleymani focuses there, specifically on detecting and managing disease on the molecular level. It’s a complex job that requires detailed knowledge of the surfaces of the biological materials and how they react to forms of detection—such as electricity or light—as well as treatments, such as a molecule of medication.

Soleymani’s understanding of materials is in demand. Colleagues in medicine at McMaster and elsewhere often approach her to help them develop new tests or treatments. She’s currently working with colleagues in Health Sciences to develop a quick, low-cost way to detect endometriosis, a condition in which the layer of tissue that normally covers the inside of the uterus grows outside it. (Currently, it takes about 10 years for the diagnosis.) She’s also working with physicians to help them develop sensors for other diseases.

She loves the collaborative process because she can more quickly see the new technology in action.

“There are many steps involved in developing sensors, from synthesizing materials to making devices, testing them, creating the best surface and then doing clinical applications,” says Soleymani. “If I wanted to do it all myself, I couldn’t make a whole lot of impact in my lifetime.”

Soleymani’s work is helping colleagues in McMaster Health Sciences hunt for biomarkers–molecules in the body that spell signs of disease, like cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, endometriosis. They all leave their traces in bodily fluids. The key is finding them, and early enough to be detected before the disease progresses. But current means of diagnosis tend to require large quantities of markers.

Soleymani’s team is figuring out ways to easily detect the biomarkers in the smallest, most diluted quantities possible, using materials that are low-cost. The end goal is to use an easily accessible bodily fluid, like sweat, urine or saliva, and create really sensitive tests that pick up even the faintest trace of common illnesses. The goal of featuring these tests in a relatively cheap, accessible format, as in wearable devices.

“People want control over their own health. That’s the trend.”

The earlier and easier the detection, the better the outcome of treatment.

She credits McMaster’s culture of academic collaboration—a team approach can help solve problems more efficiently and quicken the pace of scientific discovery.

“The impact is bigger than the sum of us. For me, that’s exciting. You see progress. You realize how much faster these collaborative projects go than if I did them all by myself.”

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