Sensing Technologies Lab: With antibodies against food poisoning

Prevent food poisoning with antibody tests: unibz is working on this innovative sensor technology in the Sensing Technologies Lab.

Antibody tests are not only in demand in corona times. They can also open up innovative ways of controlling food safety. This is shown by a current research project by the Sensing Technologies Lab at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, which is being presented this week on the cover of the international journal Biosensors. So-called immunosensors are being developed there, which, by coating electrodes with antibodies, make it easy to check the histamine levels in protein-containing foods such as fish and thus prevent food poisoning. 
Whether in smartphones and cars, production systems or in building management: sensors are an integral part of our private and professional everyday life. The young Sensing Technologies Lab of the Faculty of Science and Technology at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano is working on opening up new areas of application for measuring various physical or chemical values ​​with innovative technologies. The local research team from various disciplines such as physics, engineering, chemistry, biotechnology or food technology specializes primarily in printed sensors that can be manufactured inexpensively with special conductive inks and are flexible in use. 
One of the projects currently underway has now made it onto the cover of the edition of the international journal Biosensors that was published on Tuesday, April 27. “Flexible and Printed Electrochemical Immunosensor Coated with Oxygen Plasma Treated SWCNTs for Histamine Detection” is the title of the paper, which was led by chemical engineer Shkodra Bajramshahe and contains important interim results of her doctoral thesis at the Faculty of Science and Technology. Born in Kosovar, she graduated in Pristina with honors in chemical engineering and chemistry and then did research at Umeå University in Sweden for her master’s thesis in the field of chromatography, a chemical analysis method that allows ingredients in substance mixtures to be identified and separated . In November 2018 she was accepted into the international doctoral program for food technology and biotechnology at unibz. 
Within the multidisciplinary team at the Sensing Technologies Lab, she managed to create an immunosensor to develop, thanks to which the histamine load of food can be tested in a simple and inexpensive way in the future. “Histamines are found particularly in foods with a high protein content, such as fish, and can lead to food poisoning at higher concentrations,” explains Shkodra Bajramshahe. A well-known example is scombroid fish poisoning, which can occur when eating fish that are no longer fresh or canned fish with too high a histamine content. “The aim of our project is to develop a method that can be used to quickly and easily determine a high histamine content, even outside of laboratory tests,” says the chemical engineer. So far, according to Bajramshahe, most of the comparable tests have been based on laboratory analyzes that also use environmentally harmful chemicals. 
However, their approach consists of sensors that are printed with a silver or silver chloride ink and coated with histamine antibodies . The reaction between these antibodies and the histamine is then converted into an electrochemical signal. “To increase the electrochemical signal, we sprayed the electrodes with a solution made of carbon nanotubes,” says the researcher. The latter were activated with oxygen plasma to reduce their water-repellent effect. 
The development has not yet reached market maturity, but the scientific community has already become aware of it. “In order to actually be able to use the sensors in food businesses, a mobile device is also required that translates the signals into specific histamine values,” explains the researcher. Once this has been developed, the industry will have an inexpensive instrument at its disposal with which even untrained personnel can easily carry out quality measurements directly on the product. 
“This promising project is symbolic of the work in our laboratory,” says the head of the Sensing Technologies Lab and re-confirmed rector of unibz, Prof. Paolo Lugli . His multidisciplinary team is also working on innovative sensor technologies in other research projects, with which laborious laboratory work in areas such as food, environment and agriculture can be replaced or at least supplemented by easy-to-use and inexpensive instruments. “Our aim is to use the development of such technologies to increase the competitiveness of domestic producers and, above all, to contribute to greater food safety and compliance with quality standards in the food industry,” said Prof. Paolo Lugli.
Cover of the 4th edition of the International Journal Biosensors