MacGuyvered JELL-O Detects Organ Failure

Do you have acute pancreatitis? Do you think you might but don’t have hours  and hundreds of dollars to spend at the doctor waiting to find out? Well look under those couch cushions and roll some pennies, because you can build a sensor for under one dollar. Even better? It takes an hour or less for the results to come back.

Students at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a low-tech, low-cost test to diagnose acute pancreatitis, a sudden swelling of the pancreas, often resulting in permanent organ damage (and sometimes death). Using a cheap LED light, aluminum foil, gelatin and milk protein, they have built what is essentially “a battery having a trypsin-selective switch that closes the circuit between the anode and cathode.”

There are two steps to the process of pancreatitis detection using the new device. First, a drop of blood extract is placed atop the gelatin and milk protein mixture. The enzyme trypsin, elevated in pancreatitis patients, will break down the gelatin and protein.

In step two, a drop of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda or lye) is added to the mix. If the blood extract has sufficiently broken down the gelatin (indicating high levels of trypsin), the sodium hydroxide will react with the aluminum foil below, corroding the final barrier over the LED cathode. Magnesium anode and an iron salt create a circuit and generate enough current to light the LED. If the light is activated within an hour, acute pancreatitis is diagnosed.

The device can be assembled quickly or purchased cheaply, and at just about a square inch in size, is extremely portable. Find out more about UT Austin’s sensor in Analytical Chemistry.


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