Editorial Feature

Precise Protein Detection with Advanced Sensor Technologies

In this article, we explore how sensor technologies can be used to detect proteins in biological samples with accuracy and precision.

Image Credit: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com

Proteins, the intricate molecular machines orchestrating the symphony that is our biological processes, are omnipresent. Their detection holds profound significance by fostering advancements in quality control, process optimization, and scientific inquiry.

Protein detection holds immense significance across diverse domains: the pharmaceutical industry, the food and beverage sector, life sciences and environmental monitoring. In recent years, sensor technologies have emerged as pivotal tools, revolutionizing protein detection methodologies and enabling breakthroughs in these critical areas.

Protein Detection's Significance

Quality Control

In the pharmaceutical and food production industries, ensuring product quality is paramount. Thus, protein detection is fundamental for confirming the identity, purity, and potency of pharmaceutical compounds, biologics, and food products. Detecting unwanted proteins, contaminants, or allergens is vital to prevent adverse effects and maintain consumer safety.

Process Optimisation

Industrial processes often depend on specific protein reactions or catalysis, where accurate protein detection aids in monitoring these processes in real time, ensuring they operate efficiently and with high yield. For example, in biotechnology and enzyme production, optimizing protein concentrations and activity is crucial for cost-effective manufacturing.

Research and Development

Protein detection is the backbone of life sciences research. It enables the identification and quantification of biomarkers, protein-protein interactions, and cellular responses to stimuli. In drug discovery, researchers use protein detection to screen for potential drug candidates and understand their mechanisms of action.

Role of Sensor Technologies in Revolutionizing Protein Detection Methodologies

Sensor technologies, especially more recent developments such as nanopore single-molecule detection technology, have transformed protein detection by boosting sensitivity, enabling real-time monitoring, multiplexing, and miniaturization, which such advancements have led to portable diagnostics, label-free detection, and enhanced environmental monitoring. These advances have propelled research, diagnostics, and drug development, providing faster, more precise protein analysis.

Various sensor types play crucial roles in detecting and quantifying a wide range of analytes, including proteins, chemicals, and biomolecules. Three common sensor types are optical sensors, electrochemical sensors, and surface plasmon resonance (SPR) sensors. Each will be discussed below, looking at their sensitivity, specificity and real-time monitoring capabilities.

Optical Sensors

Optical sensors rely on the interaction of light with the analyte to detect and quantify it, usually detecting light within a range of electromagnetic spectra (ultraviolet, visible, and infrared). Sensors are able to convert wavelength, frequency, or light polarisation due to the phenomenon known as the photoelectric effect. Hence, optical sensors are versatile and widely used in various applications, including environmental monitoring, healthcare, and biochemistry.

Optical sensors are also highly sensitive to changes in light properties, such as intensity, wavelength, or polarisation, and thus capable of detecting even small variations in analyte concentration. In addition, it is possible to design optical sensors to be highly specific by using recognition elements like antibodies, aptamers, or molecularly imprinted polymers that selectively interact with the target analyte.

Optical sensors excel in real-time monitoring due to the rapid response of light-based signals. Techniques such as fluorescence, absorbance, and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy allow continuous observation of analyte interactions.

Electrochemical Sensors

Electrochemical sensors detect analytes by measuring changes in electrical properties at the electrode-solution interface and are highly sensitive, portable, and widely used in clinical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and food safety. Electrochemical sensors are known for their high sensitivity, especially in detecting electroactive species.

Minute changes in electrical properties (e.g., current or voltage) at the electrode-solution interface can be measured. Their specificity is achieved through tailored electrode surfaces and selective redox reactions. Immobilizing specific receptors on electrodes enhances selectivity. Electrochemical sensors offer real-time monitoring as they provide immediate electrical signals in response to analyte binding,  and are therefore commonly used for continuous monitoring of analyte concentrations.

Surface Plasmon Resonance (SPR) Sensors

SPR sensors are a subset of optical sensors that monitor changes in refractive index at the surface of a metal layer, typically gold or silver. When analyte molecules bind to a recognition element immobilized on the sensor surface, it causes a shift in the resonance angle or wavelength of incident light. SPR sensors are widely used in biotechnology, drug discovery, and biomolecular interaction studies due to their real-time, label-free detection capabilities.SPR sensors are extremely sensitive to changes in refractive index at the sensor surface, enabling the detection of molecular interactions at low concentrations.

They offer high specificity by using immobilized recognition elements, ensuring that only the target analyte triggers changes in the SPR signal. SPR sensors are well-suited for real-time monitoring of biomolecular interactions. They provide continuous data on binding kinetics and affinity, making them valuable in drug discovery and biosensor applications.

Advancements and Innovations in Protein Detection

Sensor technologies find applications across a spectrum of industries. In pharmaceuticals, they validate drug formulations and assess protein biomarkers. The food and beverage sector employs sensors for allergen and pathogen detection. Biotechnology relies on them for protein-protein interaction studies. Environmental monitoring leverages sensors to detect pollutants.

There has been much success in the recent advancements and developments in protein detection research. At the École Polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, researchers developed an innovative biosensing device called the ImmunoSEIRA sensor by combining multiple advanced technologies.

With this novel biosensor, the researchers could detect and identify misfolded proteins that are biomarkers of neurodegenerative disorders, a significant breakthrough for diagnostics. This development has the potential to revolutionize the early detection and monitoring of these debilitating conditions and assess treatment options at various stages of the diseases' progression.

This breakthrough demonstrates the innovative achievements in nanotechnology, miniaturization and integration of data analysis. For example, nanorod arrays, whereby the sensor incorporates gold nanorod arrays, provide an extremely high surface area-to-volume ratio, enabling them to capture and interact with biomolecules with exceptional sensitivity. This level of sensitivity is critical for detecting trace amounts of disease-associated biomarkers in complex biological samples.

In addition, nanotechnology allows for the miniaturization of the sensor components, reducing size and making it more portable and versatile. This miniaturization is advantageous for point-of-care diagnostics, where compact and efficient devices are needed for rapid and on-site testing.

Regarding the integration of data analysis, the ImmunoSEIRA sensor harnesses the power of artificial intelligence (AI), specifically neural networks, for data analysis. This integration of AI allows for the automated and accurate identification of specific disease-associated protein forms, quantifying the stages of disease and its progression. The introduction of the AI-assisted ImmunoSEIRA sensor is a positive step forward, providing valuable improvements in the early detection of neurodegenerative diseases, ongoing disease monitoring, and evaluating drug efficacy. This development is particularly significant as it addresses the urgent requirement for timely intervention and treatment of these debilitating conditions.

Industrial Applications of Biosensors: An Overview

References and Further Reading

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‌Huang, C.W., et al. (2023). A review of biosensor for environmental monitoring: principle, application, and corresponding achievement of sustainable development goals. Bioengineered ,14(1), pp.58–80. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10308875/?report=classic

‌www.analytik-jena.com. (2020). Vaccine Quality Control: Total Protein Determination by TN Analysis. Available from: https://www.analytik-jena.com/knowledge/blog/posts/total-protein-vaccines/

‌Bobst, C. E., et al. (2008). Detection and Characterization of Altered Conformations of Protein Pharmaceuticals Using Complementary Mass Spectrometry-Based Approaches. Analytical Chemistry, 80(19), pp.7473–81.

‌Afzaal, M., et al. (2022). Proteomics as a promising biomarker in food authentication, quality and safety: A review. Food Science & Nutrition, 10(7), pp.2333–2346.

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‌Ahmad, M., et al. (2023). A generalizable nanopore sensor for highly specific protein detection at single-molecule precision. Nature Communications [Online]. 14(1), pp.1374. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-023-36944-9

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Chi Cheng

Written by

Chi Cheng

Having graduated in Pharmacology BSc (Hons), followed by the completion of a Master of Science in Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Chi’s interests spans widely across many areas of scientific enquiry within the life sciences and beyond. This has been demonstrated with his successful completion of modules relating to pharmacology, neuroscience, organic chemistry, biomedical science, as well as animal and plant biology, during his academic pursuits.


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