New biosensor detects sepsis in newborns

Abtin Saateh, PhD student at BIOS, Mateo Hamel, Karim Zahra and Marco Fumagalli, cofounders of Neosens © 2023 Alain Herzog

Abtin Saateh, PhD student at BIOS, Mateo Hamel, Karim Zahra and Marco Fumagalli, cofounders of Neosens © 2023 Alain Herzog

STUDENT PROJECTS - The Neosens project proposes a sepsis detection system for newborn babies in low- and middle-income countries, while MossStandard is developing a prototype of air purifier based on plant moss.

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition caused by an over-active immune response, generally following a bacterial infection. It’s a major cause of infant death worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, 2.9 million children under the age of five died of sepsis in 2017, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. However, early detection and treatment with antibiotics can considerably improve a patient’s outlook. At EPFL, a group of students designed a low-cost biosensor, called Neosens, that will allow doctors to diagnose sepsis in a matter of minutes.

Neosens works by detecting interleukin 6, a messenger that’s secreted by newborns’ immune systems in response to a host of biological conditions. It’s also the main early marker for sepsis. In 2022, the international SensUs competition for students selected interleukin 6 as its target molecule. Participating groups were given six months to develop a sensor that could measure interleukin 6 concentrations in a drop of blood for diagnostic purposes. The EPFL team – made up of 12 students from a range disciplines – designed an initial device as part of EPFL’s Make program. They ended up winning three awards at the SensUs finals in Eindhoven, including the Translation Potential award. Encouraged by these results, three of the team members – Karim Zahra, a microengineering student at EPFL, Marco Fumagalli, a life-science engineering student at EPFL, and Mateo Hamel, now a Master’s student at ETH Zurich – decided to take the development work further.

Sepsis a neonatology nightmare

Neosens’ patented technology was developed at EPFL’s BioNanoPhotonic Systems Laboratory (BIOS), headed by Hatice Altug. The group went through several iterations to make the device more reliable and reduce its detection time, and wrote a machine learning program that can spot the marker almost without fail. “We got a lot of support right from the beginning from Prof. Altug and Abtin Saateh, one of her PhD students,” says Fumagalli. The students also received positive feedback from medical industry professionals. “We were in touch with Prof. Ashraf Omar, a chief physician at a hospital in Cairo, who thought our idea was a good one,” says Zahra. “He described sepsis as a neonatology nightmare, confirming that our technology addresses a genuine public-health problem.”

In 2023, the three students signed up for EPFL’s Blaze Startup Accelerator program. In this highly selective program, students receive two to three months of coaching on how to take technology to market and navigate the challenges of starting a new business. Only around 40% of the student groups that take part in Blaze go on to create a company. Maurice Gaillard, who runs the program, explains: “Blaze is intense and requires a large investment from students in terms of time and energy. In return, it gives them the skills they’ll need in the business world. Depending on how much effort they put in, students can receive up to CHF 10,000 in funding, personalized coaching and access to a network of contacts.” At the Blaze awards ceremony in June, the Neosens prototype won both the jury award and the audience award. The three students also took part in Start Lausanne this year – a six-month program for Swiss university students – and were awarded first place.

The group is now more motivated and enthusiastic than ever. They used the summer break to take their project further, with the hope of soon introducing Neosens on the market. Right now they’re aiming to better understand precisely which bacteria trigger the response detected by their device. “We know our system can spot interleukin 6 but we want to determine the full spectrum of potential applications,” says Zahra. A second, more ergonomic prototype should be ready later this year.

Plant moss helps purify indoor air

Indoor air contains particles from a host of sources: construction materials, cleaning products, furniture, decorative objects, cosmetics, paint and more. “Studies have shown that indoor air quality is often at problematic levels and can lead to health issues,” says Thomas Cañellas Rey de Vinas, a Master’s student in life sciences at EPFL. Airing out rooms on a daily basis by opening the windows doesn’t always solve the problem – mechanical ventilation systems are usually needed, especially in buildings that are well-insulated. “But such systems are rarely installed, even when old buildings are renovated since that wasn’t part of the original architectural design,” says Cañellas Rey de Vinas.

Thomas Cañellas Rey de Vinas during his final presentation © 2023 Changemakers

As a child, Rey de Vinas often went walking in the woods and had always been intrigued by the many different colors, shapes and forms of bryophytes, or plant moss. It’s not surprising that as a Master’s student, he came up with the idea of using these plants’ natural capacity to absorb pollutants by adding them to picture frames and other decorative items. Some work has already been done in this area, but Rey de Vinas wants to go further by listing the benefits of different moss species and suggesting various types of natural frames. “Moss is easy to maintain – we could even integrate a watering device directly into our system,” he says. Rey de Vinas signed up for the spring 2023 edition of Changemakers so he could take the first steps towards business development, and he won first place at the awards ceremony in June. “The guidance I received and classes I took under Changemakers helped me better target my business idea and pitch it effectively,” he says. The program is run every spring and fall and includes 12 weeks of workshops and professional coaching to build up students’ entrepreneurial skills. Melis Ataol, the Changemakers program manager, says: “Our goal is to give students an initial idea of what business creation is all about, provide an opportunity for them to share their experience and form a community of innovation-minded people with the same values.”

Next up for Rey Cañellas de Vinas is to build an initial prototype of his natural air purifier to use in his own home.

Blaze. The next round of participants will be selected this fall:

Changemakers. Applications are now being accepted for the fall cohort: