In a world-first, more than 460 million people living with diabetes are set to benefit from new saliva testing technology developed in Australia.
A needle-free, pain-free diabetes test developed at the University of Newcastle has begun its journey from the lab to the market, following $6.3 million in funding to establish the first manufacturing facility for the biosensor technology.
Funded under the Medical Products priority of the Australian Government’s Modern Manufacturing Initiative, the facility will help to transition twenty years of research to retail shelves to benefit millions of diabetics around the globe, with the glucose biosensor technology poised to also deal with other diseases in the near future.
From Australia to the world
University of Newcastle physicist and research leader, Professor Paul Dastoor, said his team at the Centre for Organic Electronics (COE) were working closely with their commercial partner and grant recipient – GBS , on a purpose-built manufacturing facility to be located in the Hunter region.
‘Construction will begin on the facility this year, with the first devices due to roll off the production line by 2023,’ said Professor Dastoor.
‘With more than 460 million people testing their glucose levels regularly, this is a technology with huge demand, and the potential to create significant high-tech jobs growth in our region and beyond.’
The saliva glucose biosensor test makes painful finger-prick testing for type 1 and type 2 diabetes obsolete, representing the first major innovation since the blood glucose test was developed in the 1960s.
Professor Dastoor attributes this in part to inspiration from his wife, who as a primary school teacher helped young children in her care to monitor their blood glucose levels.
‘It’s a heartbreaking scenario when the lunch bell rings and everyone runs to the playground, bar an unfortunate few who stay back to surrender their finger for blood testing at every meal time,’ said Professor Dastoor.
‘Our vision was to create a world where no one needs to bleed in order to eat.’
How it works
Professor Dastoor explained, ‘One of our key challenges was the sheer unavailability of glucose in saliva. It exists in minute concentrations, so you need to develop an incredibly powerful platform to detect it.
‘Saliva also contains a plethora of other substances, so you’ve then got to tune out a lot of “noise” to ensure results are accurate,’ he said.
Professor Dastoor said the sensor (similar in size to a stick of chewing gum and considerably thinner), was incredibly powerful, detecting substances that exist in saliva in minute concentrations.
‘With this highly sensitive platform, we can now detect glucose at the levels found in saliva, for the first time,’ Professor Dastoor said.
Coated with a natural enzyme – Glucose Oxidase – the biosensor interacts with saliva, producing a reaction that generates an electrical current. This current can be detected and measured to reveal highly accurate glucose levels which could be delivered via a smartphone app and the data stored in the cloud.
Professor Dastoor said the sensor could be developed for application across 130 indications including tumour markers, hormones and allergens.
‘The biosensor is a “platform technology”, which means it will be widely applicable to detect a variety of substances that identify a range of diseases. We’re already looking for the substances that identify cancer, hormones and allergies,’ he said.
Professor Paul Dastoor said the sensor could help with new diagnostic tests urgently needed to help eradicate COVID-19.
His team are partnering with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University to help develop the sensor platform as a non-invasive COVID test.
‘The Wyss Institute have developed a clever antifouling coating that can be incorporated into the biosensor platform, offering a new diagnostic tool for COVID-19 that can be printed onto plastic strips at massive scale,’ Professor Dastoor said.
How it’s made
Professor Dastoor and his team have already developed a small-scale ‘factory on campus’ at the University’s Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER), including ink synthesis, custom printing and equipment fabrication.
‘We’ve built a commercial-scale facility in our lab, however, this is a shared resource used to advance some of our other technologies including our printed solar panels, which there is also huge demand for,’ explained Professor Dastoor.
‘A dedicated manufacturing facility for biosensors in the Hunter will enable us to dramatically ramp up production of the saliva biosensor to meet global demand,’ he said.
The ‘factory on campus’ is at the cutting edge of an emerging industry known as ‘functional printing’, where instead of producing text and images, printers are producing printed electronic or ‘functional’ devices. The reel-to-reel printer in Professor Dastoor’s lab previously printed wine labels.
With functional printing, Professor Dastoor’s team marry the old and the new, using conventional printers combined with proprietary electronic inks, to achieve low-cost production of advanced materials.
‘What we’ve been able to do for the first time is combine printed electronics with biological sensing. That means we’re able to detect molecules like glucose, using sensors we can print hundreds of millions of, using really low-cost printing equipment,’ said Professor Dastoor.
He suggests functional printing could help reignite the shrinking traditional print manufacturing sector.
‘Disruption in the traditional print industry has left a great deal of useful equipment stranded. Functional printing of electronic devices such as the saliva glucose biosensor is an opportunity to recommission this idle equipment, resuscitating onshore manufacturing industries and creating jobs for skilled workers,’ Professor Dastoor said.
Initially licensed in 2016 to commercial research partner, The iQ Group Global, the saliva glucose biosensor was listed on the NASDAQ on Christmas Eve in 2020 under GBS Inc. It raised US$21.6 million (AU$27.4 million) at its Initial Public Offering (IPO).
It’s the first University of Newcastle innovation to appear on an international stock exchange and has been on a rapid commercialisation trajectory ever since.
‘To see the biosensor on shelves, changing lives will be immensely satisfying, it’s why we do the work we do,’ said Professor Dastoor.
You can watch a short video about the new biosensor technology below: