A plastic chip that
detects toxins in the

Scientist, Institute of Nano Science and Technology (INST), Mohali

Dr. Priyanka has been an INK (Innovation and Knowledge) Fellow. The same year (2012), she was listed as Top innovator under the DST – Lockheed Martin India Innovator Growth program and was the sole woman listed in the MIT list of Technology Innovators under 35 years.

The accolades have been mainly for a biochip electrochemical sensor for immuno-sensing applications. Conventional methods for pesticide monitoring are generally complex, time-consuming and require costly, bulky instrumentation. Dr. Priyanka’s plastic chip uses simple assay techniques to detect toxic materials in the environment quickly and cost effectively. The chip costs a measly INR 5.

The biochip took four years to design and develop during her assignment at CSIR-funded Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), Chandigarh. The work presents a low-cost disposable electrochemical immuno-sensor kit capable of detecting environmental pollutants as well as clinical diagnostics. This innovation has substantial applications in various disciplines. The team is looking for potential buyers or to transfer the technology for the commercial use of the product.

Presently a scientist at the Institute of Nano Science and Technology (INST) at Mohali, Dr. Priyanka is working on developing nanobioprobe mediated low-cost sensing platforms for clinical and environmental applications. She took some time off to respond to questions from Vaahini. Excerpts:

You have a patent for plastic biochip based electrochemical immunosensor. What exactly does this do? What are its applications?

Low cost diagnostic is becoming very popular in India and has a big growing market potential. Because of the severe toxicity of pesticides, even at trace levels, it is essential to monitor these levels of pesticides in the environment and foodstuffs. There has, therefore, been a great demand for developing inexpensive, reliable assay techniques for effective field monitoring of these toxic molecules.

This novel, inexpensive plastic biochip electrochemical sensor can be used for immunosensing applications. The work presents a low-cost disposable electrochemical immunosensor kit capable of detecting environmental pollutants as well as clinical diagnostics. In particular, the Plastic Biochip Electrochemical Sensor enables, for the first time, the commercial use of highly electro-active electrochemical gold substrate at a very low cost (INR 5). The developmental status of our innovation is that we have successfully validated our biochips for the monitoring of special class of herbicides i.e. phenyl urea herbicides for water samples. The plastic biochip-based electrochemical immunosensor is a highly sensitive and economically viable sensor device. The sensitivity of the developed assay is even higher than the currently used conventional Gas Chromotography/ High Performance Liquid Chromatography (GC/HPLC) methods. The total cost per assay is worked out to be around INR 20, which is very low in comparison to the cost of the assay by conventional mass or HPLC based detection techniques (cost per assay is around INR 1000 or more).

The immunosensor can be used in:

  • Environmental testing laboratories
  • Point of care diagnosis
  • Health care centers
  • Hospitals
  • Research Centers
  • Educational Institutes
  • Industries

Agriculture in Punjab is seeing a surfeit of pesticide use. Are you involved in any research to reduce this or address this problem in some way?

Agriculture nanotechnology is one of the prime research areas at INST. Presently, my group is mainly monitoring existing pesticides and their residues along with new generation pesticides. Soon, we will start work on nano-encapsulation of pesticides in order to reduce their dosage and human exposure.

Is most of the work you do applicable to agriculture only?

The biosensors that we develop are highly versatile. By changing the bio-receptor, they can be used for multiple applications. Certainly agriculture is among them. Apart from it, we are working on clinical diagnosis, bacterial pathogens, toxins and cancer marker detection.

What do you think makes you an innovator?

Innovation is a combination of ideas and hard work. Things do not always work on the first try. I kept on revamping the product. To simply try something and give it up as soon as it fails never leads to innovation. This is something great teachers model daily in their teaching, as they turn good ideas into great ones. Conversation is crucial to the process of innovation, but without action, ideas simply fade away and/or die.

How can one develop an innovative mindset?

Every innovation starts from a question not an answer. The ability to find questions is a key to become an innovator. Finding new and better ways of doing things, an innovative mind first understands whom we are creating them for. To be truly innovative, sometimes one has to go off the beaten path. Steven Johnson has a powerful quote where he states, “Chance favors the connected mind.” Innovation does not happen in isolation, as it is often ideas that are being shared amongst many that lead to new and better ideas being developed. An innovative mind constantly looks around the world and creates connections. Isolation is the enemy of innovation. Networking to learn from others and create new and powerful ideas is of utmost importance. Networks are crucial if one is going to develop the “Innovator’s Mindset.”

Any message for women who wish to be innovators?

Research and technology development demand knowledge, experience, time and patience. Women are naturally blessed with patience and creativity. This will hold them in good stead.