Small and smart – researchers and doctors cooperate and innovate in Freiburg

Research teams at the University of Freiburg are developing new biomedical tools that have the potential to revolutionize and streamline diagnostic procedures. Scientists and engineers at the Freiburg Center for Interactive Materials and Bioinspired Technologies (FIT), the university’s Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK), and the cluster of excellence CIBSS – the Centre for Integrative Biological Signalling Studies, are designing sensors capable of rapidly, inexpensively, and accurately detecting some types of cancer and other diseases.

Woman; Quelle: GettyImages/Martin-Barraud
© GettyImages/Martin-Barraud

Microsystems engineer Dr. Can Dincer leads a junior research group at FIT and is the head of the Disposable Microsystems group at the Laboratory for Sensors at IMTEK. He is involved in a range of programs. One team has already developed a system for sensing raised hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) levels – a sign of lung inflammation caused by asthma or lung cancer, for example – in breath. In an interview with the university's online magazine, Dincer explained, “We can measure the H2O2 content of exhaled, simulated breath using a simple and inexpensive method.”

A specially-treated paper sensor with electrodes printed on it is the system's lynchpin. It is small enough to fit into conventional respiratory masks. The group has applied to patent the technology, which has a broad range of applications. Extending its use for non-invasive glucose monitoring, for example, is being done in cooperation with Imperial College in London.

FIT, IMTEK, and CIBSS are refining another innovation that uses CRISPR gene scissors in combination with electrochemical biosensors to detect microRNA (miRNA) from the blood of patients suspected of having cancer or Alzheimer's. Scientists and doctors in Bonn, Vienna and Vorarlberg, Austria, are contributing to it in different projects. "What's special about our system is that it works without target amplification like polymerase chain reaction, because in that case, specialized devices and chemicals would be required. That makes our system economical and considerably faster than other procedures," said Dincer. His team is aiming to realize a system capable of becoming the first rapid test for diseases with established miRNA markers that can be used right at the doctor's office.

The lion's share of the funding for this work currently comes from the German Research Foundation (DFG). The researchers are now exploring possible start-up opportunities. At the same time, Dincer is investigating the VIP+ program of Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the "EXIST – University-Based Business Start-Ups" program of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) to promote these activities.

These projects reflect what makes Germany a world leader in innovation, particularly in the areas of medical biotechnology – including diagnostics and therapies. Interdisciplinary cooperation at home and abroad in basic and applied research coupled with funding programs from foundations, government, and industry contribute to making the country an ideal location for startups and research and development partnerships.

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