“The diversity in our team was key to our success”
A team of EPFL students recently won a top award at SensUs, an international competition on biosensors, for their device that can detect influenza A in a saliva sample.
SensUs is a student competition held every year by Eindhoven University of Technology, with the aim of promoting the use of biosensor technology in healthcare. This year, participants had to develop biosensors that could detect the respiratory Influenza A virus in an infected saliva sample in a matter of minutes. EPFL participates in SensUs every year; this year’s team was made up of 12 Master’s students who are studying life sciences engineering and microengineering – and they performed exceptionally well.
The EPFL-developed biosensor, called SenSwiss, has nanoparticles on its surface that trap flu-virus antibodies and thus prevent light from passing through. By measuring the throughput of light, scientists can determine the concentration of the antibodies – and therefore of the virus. “At first, it took us about two hours to take one measurement, so we had to speed up the process by using a microfluidic channel to control the flow of the sample on the sensor’s surface,” explains Théo Mayer, a member of the project’s technical team that worked on building the prototype. “To automate the sample flow, we used a high-precision pump from Advanced Microfluidics, one of our sponsors,” adds Sara Chehtite, another member of the technical team.
During the competition’s closing ceremony on 3 September, the EPFL team had the opportunity to show their biosensor in action. They won the Analytical Performance award, which goes to the team with the fastest and most accurate test. The team also took second place in the Translation Potential category, which looks at how well-suited a biosensor is for business applications. “We had to think like a start-up and consider the business model and potential customers, as well as the funding we would need to create a prototype,” explains Blanche Berneron, who worked on the business-related aspects of the project. “We didn’t have a lot of experience in this field, so it was challenging but also mind-opening.”
After spending the summer working on the biosensor, the team became keenly aware that the diversity in their group was an important factor in its success. “We didn’t just come from different parts of EPFL. We also came from 12 different countries! It was really interesting to see how the various cultures added up,” says Deborah Scherrer Ma, co-captain of the SenSwiss team. “Working in a team can be challenging, but it also has many advantages,” adds Janet van der Graaf, a fellow life sciences engineering student. “Combining the individual skills of each team member is what allowed us to achieve what we did.”
When asked about their plans for after the competition, the team seems inspired for the future. “I found the hands-on part the most exciting. It made me want to work on more projects like this,” says William Verstraeten, co-captain of the SenSwiss team. All the team members agree that they would like to see more of their classmates take part in this kind of project. “Every year the team members change, and we’re really excited about recruiting the new members and helping them prepare for success at next year’s competition!” says Eloi Schlegel, who headed promotional activities for the project.