A new graphene sensor could allow medical professionals to detect asthma and other respiratory problems much earlier.

Scientists from Rutgers University-New Brunswick have developed a sensor that can be incorporated into a device that alerts a person with asthma when and at what dosage to take their medication.

“Our vision is to develop a device that someone with asthma or another respiratory disease can wear around their neck or on their wrist and blow into it periodically to predict the onset of an asthma attack or other problems,” Mehdi Javanmard, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said in a statement. “It advances the field of personalized and precision medicine.”

According to the study, the researchers utilized the properties of reduced graphene oxide—particularly because the material is resilient to corrosion, while also exhibiting rapid electron transfer with electrolytes, allowing for highly sensitive electrochemical detection with minimal fouling.

Modern asthma diagnosing techniques, including spirometry, which measures breathing capacity and testing for exhaled nitric oxide are costly and invasive. By measuring biomarkers in exhaled breath condensate—tiny liquid droplets discharged during breathing—researchers have found a way to better understand asthma at the molecular level and discover more targeted treatments and better disease management practices.

The new electrochemical sensor can accurately measure nitrite in exhaled breath condensate using reduced graphene oxide that resist corrosion and has superior electrical properties, while being able to accurately detect biomarkers.

“Nitrite level in breath condensate is a promising biomarker for inflammation in the respiratory tract,” Clifford Weisel, study co-author and professor at Rutgers' Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI). “Having a rapid, easy method to measure it can help an asthmatic determine if air pollutants are affecting them so they can better manage use of medication and physical activity.

“It could also be used in a physician's office and emergency departments to monitor the effectiveness of various anti-inflammatory drugs to optimize treatment.”

Robert Laumbach, the study co-author and an occupational and environmental medicine physician at EOHSI, explained that increases in airway inflammation is a warning sign of increased risk of an asthma attack or exacerbation of COPD, which allows professionals to detect the issues earlier and utilize more-effective preventive measures or treatment.

The researchers now plan on developing a portable, wearable system that Javanmard said could be available within five years. They also plan on expanding the number of inflammation biomarkers a device could detect and measure.

About 300 million people are affected by asthma each year, with about 17.7 million adults and 6.3 million children being diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. in 2014. Other lung ailments include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which encompasses emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

“In the U.S. alone, allergy inflammation, asthma and various respiratory conditions are all on the rise, so devices that can help diagnose, monitor and manage these conditions will be in high demand,” Javanmard said.

The study was published in Microsystems & Nanoengineering.