A sensor is a device that can detect changes in its surroundings such as temperature or the amount of sunlight and convert these changes into a signal[i]. A nanosensor is simply a tiny sensor with dimensions on the nanometer scale which is loosely defined to be below 100 nanometers. This is roughly 1,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair!
There are many exciting applications for these types of sensors especially within medicine and healthcare, but also in various other industries ranging from wearables to aerospace and defense. Some of the reasons why nanosensors could replace traditional sensing methods include providing more precise, faster, and cheaper measurements. Even more excitingly is that they allow for novel uses such as much earlier cancer detection before actual symptoms appear once a few barriers are overcome.
Currently, there are large established companies conducting research in various types of nanosensors. These include Lockheed Martin, Samsung, and Dionex[ii] to mention a few. Additionally, there exist plenty of startup-companies focusing solely on nanosensor technologies.
One such start-up, Nanowear Inc., is currently testing its product in a clinical study to help patients with congestive heart failure. The product, SimpleSense, is an undergarment covered with billions of nanosensors that monitors the condition of the patient and is expected to be able to spot a heart failure three weeks in advance and notifying doctors[iii].
According to GMI Research, the market generated revenues of nanosensors are expected to grow from USD 432 million in 2019 to USD 53 billion in 2027[iv] which speaks in favor of a bright future for the technologies. This, however, is one of many predictions and should be taken with a grain of salt as with disruptive technologies, the predictions become extremely hard because of the many unknowns.
Some unknowns, for applications of nanosensors in healthcare, are whether they will overcome certain barriers before the technologies can become widely used. One main barrier is that a sensor needs a power supply to continuously function. For applications inside the human body, they need to be self-reliant in terms of energy. This has in one case been overcome by utilizing the energy generated by pressure created from bone growth where a sensor was used to detect bacterial infections in bone implants in early stages to reduce or avoid the potential damage caused[v]. Despite this innovative approach, there is still a big challenge in terms of energy as other applications most likely cannot use the same solution.
Another important barrier in healthcare applications is the need for federal approval to conduct clinical trials which ensures safety but can slow down the development process. Other market segments may experience similar challenges as products must demonstrate that they comply with safety standards.
With that being said, the future of nanosensors continues to look bright as increasing amounts of research are being done and innovative solutions to challenges, and new applications are being found by companies such as Nanowear Inc.. If you’d like to learn more about nanosensors and other nanotechnologies, please subscribe to our newsletter and stay tuned for upcoming posts.
[i] Nanosensors for Chemical and Biological and Medical Applications, Mousavi et al., Med Chem (Los Angeles) 2018, 8:8