“Semiconductivity is the secret of life. Imagine a world where every single pathogen has a barcode and you hold the barcode scanner.” – Dr Vengadesh (Founder & Director of eProfiler Solutions Ltd (UK) and Director of eProfiler Solutions Sdn Bhd).
An eProfiler-L device
COVID-19 swept across the globe with unprecedented force, shedding a glaring light on the shortcomings of medical diagnostics such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and the immunoassay test.
These include their high cost, dependence on specialist inputs, complexity and prolonged turnaround time. Not only that, variations in test setup as well as operator error can undermine the tests’ consistency, replicability and comparability.
Enter the eProfiler-L – a first-of-its-class solid-state electronic sensor for the characterization and identification of biomolecules, cells, pathogens and other microbes. This method is now known as the eProfiling method, a next-generation platform technology for personalised medicine and connected digital healthcare solutions for the near future.
The eProfiler-L works on the basis that biological materials were found to have semiconducting and other electronic properties, which can be exploited to fabricate sensors.
This remarkable discovery was made by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Vengadesh Periasamy, or Dr. Venga as he is more affectionately called is a researcher with the Low Dimensional Materials Research Centre (LDMRC), Department of Physics, Faculty of Science.
“I want to make medical diagnostics cheaper, and at the same time allow both rapid and early detection. All these can be summarized into one sentence – to improve the quality of life of both humans and animals” said Dr. Venga on why he decided to pursue this project, on which he has worked for about 16 years.
“The conventional way of doing things is okay, but there will be a bottleneck when resources such as hospital beds and oxygen tanks are not plentiful. It’s about time we understand that we’ve reached the limit. It’s like having a car, you can modify it to make it better, but you cannot make it fly – the technology is just not there yet”.
The current medical diagnostic techniques are generally based on biochemical and electrochemical techniques, which have served their purpose well for the past few hundred years, until the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the shortcomings of our current healthcare system, pushing it to its absolute limit.
A paradigm shift for medical testing is imperative – here Dr. Venga highlights the necessity for a transition from biochemical and electrochemical detectors, to bioelectronic detectors – characterizing the electronic properties of biological materials or “molecular electronics”. This concept is not entirely novel it has been brought up by the Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgi the man who discovered vitamin C, around 80 years ago. His suggestion that biomaterials can behave like some crystalline solid bodies i.e., carry electricity like semiconductors was initially met with scepticism. Now, in the face of the pandemic, such radical ideas like these are precisely what the world needs.
Fascinated by the “smartness” demonstrated by the molecules of life, Dr. Venga embarked on his research journey by initially studying the protein bacteriorhodopsin for his postgraduate degrees. Upon joining UM as a faculty member, his interest in the electronics of biomolecules became his research obsession and soon his work expanded to encompass DNA, RNA, proteins, cells, viruses and bacteria, culminating in the development of the ground-breaking eProfiler-L.
The device technology and circuitry of the eProfiler is a truly “Made-in-Malaysia” technology, while the software development is an international effort comprising “bootstrapped” resources and staff from around the globe, including Afghanistan, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.
This work now led to the establishment of two spin-off companies – eProfiler Solutions Ltd (UK) (of which Dr. Venga is the founder, one of the directors and the Chief Product Officer (CPO)) and eProfiler Solutions Sdn Bhd (of which Dr. Venga is the director).
He shared that many biotech companies see his invention as a threat to their profit, and offered to buy his technology from him – but he rejected them all.
“All these big companies come personally to see me … but somebody told me, if you want to innovate something useful and bring it to the market, you cannot let somebody else run it, you have to do it yourself”.
Following this, Dr. Venga was given the opportunity to join a fellowship for entrepreneurship and technology hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering United Kingdom (UK) in 2021, where he met his co-founders to embark on this endeavour.
Besides the eProfiler-L, which was built for bio-research labs, the company is also working on eProfiler-S, developed for electrochemical research, in which it can identify the presence and concentration of biological or non-biological materials in raw untreated samples.
Tying these together is the eProfiler TesterAPP, a powerful software designed to work in tandem with the eProfiler- L or -S. The app runs the test and sends the data to the eProfiler Cloud Service, which houses the eProfiler’s database.
The test results can then be matched against the ever-growing library of biomaterial and chemical eProfiles and eSignatures (in the case of eProfiler-S). In recognition of its great achievements, the eProfiler-L and eProfiler-S have won many awards and recognitions such as the gold medal at the International Conference and Exposition on Inventions by Institutions of Higher Learning (PECIPTA 2022).
The eProfiling technology could indeed revolutionize the healthcare industry. For instance, a huge issue now is the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Unnecessary prescription of antibiotics has led to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, where available antibiotics are no longer sufficient to treat them.
If this goes on, we could be returning to a time before antibiotics were discovered, where a small injury can be fatal.
The eProfiler-L can help by identifying whether an infection is caused by a virus or bacteria, thus preventing the unnecessary prescription of antibiotics for a viral infection.
“Imagine if we have a smartwatch that alerts us when a virus enters our bloodstream. This is the kind of rapid-detection and real-time connected healthcare technology that we’re heading towards now,” said Dr. Venga on the potential of the eProfiling method.
The group is also working towards many exciting projects, including one study on the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) for malnourished children in developing countries, and also studies on urinary tract infections (UTI). They are also collaborating with University College London (UCL) to study the purity of stem cells for cell therapy.
On top of that, they are also working on an ambitious project building a comprehensive eProfiles library of every organism and biomolecule known to man, in an all-electronic databank of organisms dubbed the eGenome Project.
Despite our technological marvel, the world was nowhere near ready to face COVID-19.
Now comes the question, how will we prepare to face the next pandemic? COVID-19 was not the first pandemic humanity has faced, and it certainly will not be the last.
The world needs a new approach to testing and screening – one that is universal, accurate and perhaps most importantly, affordable.
And this is exactly what eProfiler aims to deliver. We may not be able to predict when the next pandemic will hit, but with this new generation of technology, we are far more prepared for it.
Dr Vengadesh holding an eProfiler-L device at the International Invention, Innovation and Technology Exhibition (ITEX 2022)
The co-founders of eProfiler Solutions Ltd demonstrating the eProfiler at ITEX 2022
Farah Hannan Abd Nasir.
Ms. Farah is a PhD student from the Department of Physics, Faculty of Science.
She is currently working on a research project to make organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) more efficient. In her free time, she enjoys playing the viola and painting with watercolours.
Dr. Kumuthini Chandrasekaram, Research Officer, BPP Universiti Malaya.