Synthetic Material Opens Frontiers in Medical Diagnostics

This University City startup is exploring and exploiting the properties of a material that’s stronger than steel and nearly transparent.       

Imagine being able to get tested for dozens or even hundreds of diseases simultaneously, all from a single drop of blood.

This is the not-to-distant future envisioned by Graphene Frontiers, a tech startup based in University City. Graphene Frontiers was founded in 2010, and develops applications for graphene, a synthetic carbon molecule with remarkable strength and conductivity.

“It has amazing properties,” says Mike Patterson, CEO of Graphene Frontiers. “It’s stronger than diamond. … It’s really an elegant design.”

Defining detection

Graphene Frontiers is using graphene to develop Graphene Field Effect Transistor sensors for highly specified detection. The finished concept could be medical device technology with the capability for earlier detection of cancer, Lyme disease and more.

Graphene is an arrangement of carbon atoms in a flat, hexagonal shape, similar to a chain link fence or chicken wire. It was first produced in a lab in 2003, and two researchers from the University of Manchester won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010 for their work with graphene. It is about 100 times stronger than steel by weight, conducts heat and electricity with great efficiency and is nearly transparent.

Graphene’s conductive properties, along with its extraordinary thinness, make the field effect sensors possible, said Patterson. A sensor would include a strip of graphene one tenth the thickness of a human hair, and an electrical current is run through the strip. Attached to the strip would be antibodies for a particular disease. If, for example, the bacteria causing Lyme’s disease were present in the blood sample being tested, bacteria would bind to the antibodies, significantly altering the electrical properties of the device. Patterson compares the antibodies on the strand to “a very specific set of fishing hooks.”

Advanced models could have hundreds of strands, each with a different antibody attached, allowing users to test for hundreds of diseases from a single sample. Unlike current testing methods, which often take hours or days to yield results, a Graphene Field Effect Transistor device could have results within minutes.

Advanced application

One of the obstacles to marketing graphene products has been the enormous cost of producing the material. In 2010, the cost of graphene was in the tens of thousands of dollars per square centimeter. Today the cost is about $100-per-square-centimeter, and Patterson says new fabrication methods could bring the cost down to “pennies per square centimeter” within the next two years.

“What’s really exciting for me is the pace at which this happening,” Patterson says.

In September of 2013, Graphene Frontiers received a $744,600 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a “printing press” style method of fabricating graphene, allowing sheets a meter wide to be rolled out.

Graphene Frontiers is still in the development phase, with plans to market prototype sensors to medical researchers by the end of this year, Patterson says. The company hopes to have sensors for individual diseases demonstrated and in trials within two years.

The applications for graphene don’t end with medical testing, Patterson explains. The Graphene Field Effect Transistor sensors could also be used by soldiers, first responders and others at risk for chemical or biological attack to quickly scan the environment for a wide range of toxins and pathogens. Its light weight, transparency and extremely high conductivity could also allow graphene to be used in electronics devices.

Developing partnerships

Graphene Frontiers has an agreement to work at The Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, N.Y. It’s a satellite location to accelerate production and form relationships with regional influencers at major companies. The project will support 27 employees and $5,000,000 in investments consisting of tools and related equipment and operating costs, and enables additional employment opportunities for both CNSE and Graphene Frontiers, according to CNSE’s office of media relations.

Graphene Frontiers’ technology was developed by A.T. Charlie Johnson, director of Penn’s Nano/Bio Interface Center and a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn Arts and Sciences, along with Zhengtang Luo, a former researcher in Johnson’s lab and now a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Johnson and Luo founded the company through the Penn Center for Innovation’s UPstart program, which serves as a business incubator for technologies developed at the University. UPstart connected the researchers with Patterson, then a member of the Wharton Executive MBA program, and now the company’s CEO.