From a COVID breathalyzer to chemical weapons detection, a UNT professor develops sensors that detect diseases and dangerous substances ”Dallas innovates

Chemical weapons are one of the most serious threats facing the American military and civilians. But the sensors developed by University of North Texas scientist Guido Verbeck and UNT student Camila Virgen can make us all a little bit safer.

Sensor scientist

Guido Verbeck

Verbeck and Virgen have collaborated with Infocon, which creates gas leak detection sensors, to test next-generation instrumentation for chemical weapons detection. Last month, Verbeck and his team tested their technology at US Army Dugway proving ground in Utah. The military hosts an annual S / K challenge for the United States and allied nations and businesses to showcase their solutions for chemical and biological defense systems.

“The results have been phenomenal,” Verbeck told Dallas Innovates, and showed “how well our instrument works.”

The technology is just one of many breakthroughs that Verbeck, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UNT, and his team have pursued over the past year.

A drone that flies over chemical fires

In the field of sensors for chemical fires, Verbeck and its UNT group are also designing a drone with a mass spectrometer to help firefighters know which chemicals are burning. The drone will give them live IR images to help them react appropriately.

Verbeck, who obtained his doctorate. in Chemistry at Texas A&M, is an expert in the innovative uses of mass spectrometry. Last year his peer-reviewed research on the use of technology to detect COVID-19 has been accepted and published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Detecting toxins in CBD

Verbeck also recently co-authored a study on methods of creating Delta-8, a derivative of CBD, such as “Pot growers are pushing to crack down on Delta-8 THC and its cheap, unregulated effect.

According to Bloomberg News, contaminants can appear during manufacturing when Delta-8 is extracted from CBD by mixing it with acid. “Home brewing methods, which have earned some Delta-8s the reputation of the cannabis world as a bath gin, can introduce toxins such as lead,” says Verbeck. Even better quality extraction methods can leave behind potentially harmful compounds like chlorine and sulfates.

“It’s become almost too appealing for there to be no problem,” Thomas Kiselak, one of Verbeck’s co-authors and UNT graduate research assistant, told Bloomberg News. “All you need is some battery or pool acid, which a teenager can buy. This is something you can do in about an hour.

COVID-19 breathalyzer

Last year, Guido Verbeck and his group at UNT developed their chemical sensor, then teamed up with Dallas-based Worlds Inc. to turn it into a quick COVID breathalyzer. By detecting unique volatile organic compounds, the invention “fingerprints” the virus.

The technology was originally developed to look for chemical variants in the air, such as in a fire, drugs in a car or mass graves, Verbeck said.

Beyond COVID, this means the device has potential breakthrough applications for “detecting” other dangerous diseases like cancer and diabetes.

Diagnose diseases with a sensor

“Creating a device capable of looking not only for respiratory diseases, but also for early markers of cancer and metabolic disorders in real time could really change the field of diagnostics,” said the professor. “Because of this large set of applications, it was important to use AI and machine learning. This is what made Worlds such a great partner in the breathalyzer project last year.

COVID sniffer sensors are now in use by Inspect IR, a Frisco company that was already using technology from Verbeck’s UNT lab for portable breathalyzers that detect opioids and cannabis. The Indoor Football League Frisco Fighters has partnered with Inspect IR to perform weekly COVID screenings of players and staff.

What’s next for the busy professor? He is developing a new device for treating cancer and one for increasing organ viability for transplants while continuing to research a host of new markers of metabolic disease for his chemical sensor.

Guido Verbeck was featured in Dallas Innovates’ Future 50 in Dallas-Fort Worth in the 2021 edition of our annual magazine. We recently sat down with Verbeck about the COVID sniffer sensor he created, potential future applications of chemical sensors, and maintaining a strong research team. Here’s a takeaway:

On the chemical sensor he developed for COVID:
The membrane entry system developed here is specifically adapted to a class of chemical compounds that are released during cell death due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Different viruses have different mechanisms for this process and thus produce different volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This can be used as the virus’ “fingerprint”, as the instruments detect the masses associated with each chemical compound. There is therefore chemical selectivity through the membrane, then mass spectrometry sorts these compounds.

The chemical sensor for the COVID application was originally developed to look for chemical variants in the air. My group has developed applications for environmental monitoring, the drug sniffer car, and the detection of chemical plumes coupled with drone and drone applications (detection of chemicals burning in a fire for example, or location of mass graves from the chemical signature). These principles of air monitoring for unique chemical fingerprints were then directly applied to breath chemistry, and therefore to use for disease detection. The patents surrounding the instrumental part come from my group and the UNT.

On how these chemical sensors can change the future of disease diagnosis:
Breath testing is starting to become a diagnostic tool for a myriad of medical conditions. Breast cancer, diabetes, lung cancer have already been determined to have respiratory markers. Creating a device that can look for not only respiratory disease, but also early markers of cancer and metabolic disorders in real time could really change the field of diagnostics. Because of this large set of applications, it was important to apply AI and machine learning to the problem. This is why the worlds [was] such a great partner.

On the new UAV chemical sensor to aid in fire assessment: This flying mass spectrometer will help firefighters and first responders know exactly what is burning (chemically) and combine that with infrared technology to give first responders a more complete picture of what is going on, so they can respond effectively. appropriate way. Many fires are started chemically, especially in an underground drug lab, so the firefighter would know before entering.

On teamwork during the pandemic:
We have been truly blessed during this time. My lab is quite large and spread over three buildings, so it was very easy for us to continue working during the closures. UNT wanted to re-energize anyone working on the COVID issue, so we were able to continue our work. I also spent a lot of time with my students continually encouraging them and giving them all a positive goal to help them during these difficult times.

On his next big projects:
I’m an instrument developer, so I’m working on some really interesting issues. We are developing devices for distant odor, deposition of nanoparticles in surgery for the treatment of cancer, increasing organ viability for transplants and expanding the range of metabolic markers for other disease states. .

A version of this story originally appeared in Dallas Innovates 2021: The Resilience Issue.

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Our fourth annual magazine, Dallas Innovates 2021: The Resilience Issue, highlights Dallas-Fort Worth as a hub of innovation. The collective strength of the Dallas-Fort Worth innovation and intellectual capital ecosystem is a force to be reckoned with.

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