A team of NIEHS-funded researchers is developing a portable sensor that may provide a faster, cheaper, and more child-friendly method to detect heavy metal exposures. The research team is now gearing up to test the sensor in children living in Chicago communities where manganese exposure is a concern.

“Being able to quickly detect metals like lead and manganese would mean that efforts to remove the metals from the environment can begin faster and treatment of the individual can also start faster,” said lead investigator Ian Papautsky, Ph.D., in a press release. Now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Papautsky began developing the device in 2010 at the University of Cincinnati (UC) with Erin Haynes, Dr.P.H., who directs the Community Engagement Core in the UC Center for Environmental Genetics.

According to Haynes, motivation to develop the sensor grew out of a community-based study examining manganese exposure in children living in Marietta, Ohio, which is home to a metal refinery. Exposure to manganese, lead, and other heavy metals has been shown to negatively affect brain development, behavior, cognitive performance, and other neurological outcomes. Children, whose brains and other organ systems are still developing, are especially vulnerable to metal exposures.

With a new award from NIEHS, the research team will validate the sensor by comparing blood test results from 150 children living in Southeast Side, Chicago neighborhoods, where exposure to manganese in dust is high. They will analyze samples using both the new sensor and traditional methods. A major goal of this study is to report back blood metal results to study participants.

The portable sensor, which needs just a single drop of blood, will make measuring metal exposures more child-friendly. Current methods require researchers to collect about seven milliliters (about 1.5 teaspoons) of blood to assess exposures. “[Drawing] a tube of blood from a child is not practical,” said Papautsky, “Getting a single drop of blood from a child is a lot easier.”

Other improvements over existing methods include being more cost-effective and having a faster turnaround time for results. According to Haynes, traditional methods left families enrolled in the Marietta study waiting several months for blood test results. “It could take three to six months, and that was not satisfactory to the participants; they wanted their data,” she said in a news article. In a clinical setting, the sensor can deliver results in just a few minutes.

“By providing researchers, families, and public health professionals immediate feedback about blood metal levels, the new sensor could help us more quickly implement interventions that would reduce exposures and improve public health,” said Haynes.