U.K. researchers developing 'smell-powered' diagnostic to sniff out diseases

Based out of Bristol’s Unit DX bioscience hub, Rosa Biotech has begun working with clinicians and pharmaceutical manufacturers to refine its platform for different applications. (Pixabay)

Researchers at the University of Bristol in England are developing a device that mimics the sensitive sense of smell possessed by dogs and other mammals and is capable of sniffing out the faint chemical signatures of chronic diseases.

A new spinout from the university, Rosa Biotech, has raised £760,000, or about $982,000, to commercialize its biosensing platform, which the company says could have applications in any industry needing to profile and analyze complex biological mixtures.

The project was inspired by the ability of trained dogs to smell malaria and Parkinson’s disease and leverages synthetic protein engineering and artificial intelligence to create a potentially new kind of diagnostic device aimed at catching certain conditions early. 


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“Over the past 20 years, we have learnt how to design new proteins completely from scratch,” said Dek Woolfson, a professor at the Bristol BioDesign Institute whose team helped develop the technology. “Some mimic natural protein structures, but others are entirely new structures.”

“We built a series of barrel-shaped proteins that resemble proteins of the mammalian olfactory system, but are much simpler, easier to make and easier to handle,” Woolfson said. 

“It is these barrels that provide the basis for Rosa’s technology. We make arrays of different barrels, load each barrel with a dye, and then expose the array to something that we want to analyse, for instance a bodily fluid that may show signs of disease,” he said. “Molecules in the sample dislodge the dyes but to different extents across the array. This gives coloured patterns that are analysed using machine learning.” 

Based out of Bristol’s Unit DX bioscience hub, Rosa Biotech has begun working with clinicians and pharmaceutical manufacturers to refine its platform for different applications, the company said. 

“The scientific team has developed a sensing platform that is both sensitive enough to detect the faint chemical signature given off by chronic diseases but also versatile enough to be applied to a broad range of sensing challenges, such as the complex manufacturing process for high-value drugs,” said Rosa Biotech CEO Andy Boyce.

The investment round includes a group of business angels local to England’s South West and represents one of the largest founding investments in a spinout from the university.

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