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  • Writer's pictureKNoW Monitors

The Nose Knows, Cathy Cook, Albuquerque Journal

With a nose that’s 100,000 times more sensitive than a human nose, dogs have been given jobs detecting bombs, sniffing out bodies, finding drugs and helping medical patients. Dogs have been trained to alert diabetics that their glucose levels are dropping, they’ve been trained to detect malaria, and they’ve even been trained to alert people with epilepsy that a seizure is coming.

Know Biological and Sandia National Labs are working together to create a wearable device that replicates Fido’s success at detecting an oncoming seizure before it happens.

For those suffering from seizures, the ability to predict when one would occur is monumentally important to them and their families, said Arnold.

“The uncertainty of never knowing when you’re going to have a seizure is just so debilitating, not just physically but psychologically and emotionally,” Arnold said. “It’s just overwhelming, and when these dogs were able to predict seizures, there was this whole change in attitude, and we knew that there weren’t enough dogs to go around.”

Across the globe, 50 million people live with epilepsy — 3.4 million in the U.S.

Know Biological partnered with Florida International University to research why some dogs are able to alert before a seizure.

“After some in-depth research, we discovered that it was a smell that they were picking up and it was a smell because the body chemistry was changing at that point just before, during and just after a seizure,” Arnold said.

Researchers were able to identify the creation of volatile organic compounds, VOCs, that are not typically present in humans, but present in people with epilepsy immediately before, during and just after a seizure.

Arnold knew they couldn’t create a device that could smell — which is a complex process — but they wanted to make something that could detect the changes in body chemistry.

Sandia’s MESA Lab (Microsystems Engineering, Science and Applications) has worked for decades to create miniature sensors. At first, researchers were primarily focused on developing sensors for national security purposes, said Sandia biomedical engineer Philip Miller, who leads the project with Know from the Sandia side. Those sensors were being developed to detect chemical exposure but recently the lab has done more work on greenhouse gas detecting and medical diagnostics tools.

Arnold read an article about Sandia creating a device that could detect explosives in the field, and realized the miniaturized sensor components he needed might already exist.

“It wasn’t just a matter of taking samples and having them run in a laboratory with gas chromatography and the mass spectrometer or IMS, ion mobility spectrometer. It was being able to make it in a size that was wearable that people could take with them wherever they went and wear all day long. That was the critical issue and to find Sandia had already the ability to identify certain molecules, gave us the confidence that these were the right guys to call,” Arnold said.

At least 11 volatile organic compounds were detected in the research, but three of those compounds appeared in every type of seizure, so those are the three VOCs that Sandia’s engineers have built sensors to detect.

The team has created a working prototype of a device that could alert someone before their seizure occurs. The prototype has already been tested against samples of people who have epilepsy. The testing has been done in duplicate, with the device and the dogs both testing samples from the same people. In almost all instances, the dogs and the device have had the same results, Miller said.

In one case, the Sandia team were able to detect the VOCs 22 minutes before a seizure occurred, Arnold said. Within a few months, the team plans to have a unit that someone can wear on an ongoing basis for testing. Arnold wants the device to be commercially available by the end of 2024.

“There are a lot of factors beyond just the testing and the Sandia side of things,” Arnold said. “Once that gets done, we’ve got to find fabricators and manufacturers and component assemblers and those kinds of practical details. Go-to-market kinds of details, but I think the end of 2024 is our goal, and I won’t back down until it’s December 2024 and we’re not there.”

The study of volatile organic compounds could lead to more medical diagnostic tools.

“I still think we’re in a bit of the infancy of the science of VOCs as a medical diagnostic tool,” Miller said. “The simple principle of VOCs from a diagnostic standpoint or from a medical standpoint is that what we’re monitoring can be a couple of different scenarios. Sometimes we’re monitoring a VOC that the body is actively using to fight the problem of the disease state or issue that’s at hand. Sometimes we’re monitoring a change in metabolic processes. Sometimes we’re monitoring a new metabolic process, a cancer. So that simple understanding that any change or metabolic process in the body can produce new chemistries, I think fundamentally speaks to the breadth to which VOCs could be used as a diagnostic tool.”

There is some research beginning into one of the volatile organic compounds that the seizure alert device monitors with the aim of developing a potential anti-convulsion pharmaceutical, Miller said.

“Our understanding is that some of these molecules are a bi-product of the seizure itself and some of them is the body fighting the seizure, so there’s growing evidence that some of these molecules are basically natural to the body in terms of the body fighting the effect,” Miller said.

Know Biological is committed to finishing its seizure alert device, but after it’s complete, Arnold would like to pursue research on migraines, Parkinson’s, heart conditions, heart disease and anxiety, to see if those conditions also produce specific volatile organic compounds that could be identified.

“It’s really a cool moment when you develop a tool that can do something that hasn’t been done before,” Miller said. “You kind of open up new scientific curiosities.”


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