The Citizen Analytical and Measurement Scientist
Principal Scientist for Measurement Science, Chemical Development, Pharmaceutical Technology and Development, Operations, AstraZeneca, Macclesfield, UK
Chair CAMS Industry Advisory Board
Without perhaps realising it, from 2021, billions of people became citizen analytical and measurement scientists. Rapid antigen self-testing technologies, as used in COVID-19 self-test kits, placed medical diagnostic tools in the hands of public at level never seen previously – with huge societal value. Though estimates vary, they suggest over 4.7 billion COVID-19 tests have been carried out as of December 2022. There has been some debate in the scientific literature of the impact of such mass testing on the control of the pandemic. (Nature, Volume 590, page 202-205, 2021). However, an important conclusion was that greater clarity of communication of the benefits of testing was needed. I shall return to communication later.
Home testing technologies aren’t new in themselves – the home pregnancy lateral flow test (which detects levels of hCG) as an example, has been around for some years. However, the range of analytical and measurement science technologies available to the individual has increased and expanded over the last few years, with many in the area of disease management or well-being. This has been driven by innovations in device miniaturisation and wearable technologies, such as:
- wearable glucose monitors, employed by diabetes patients to monitor and control their disease;
- non-invasive haemoglobin monitors that, combined with smart phones, allow the individual to measure blood oxygen saturation during sports or exercise (a measurement traditionally made in a hospital setting);
- hand-held breathalysers for law enforcement, based on several mechanisms, including electrochemistry;
- airport drugs and explosive detection employing ion mobility spectrometry.
Looking to the future, the availability of these types of technology more broadly across society will only increase. Measurement devices that accompany a specific medicine to monitor efficacy and compliance will become more prevalent. Simple point-of-care technologies for disease diagnosis will have huge impact, as they can accelerate the patient to treatment (Digital Biomarkers, 3, 31-71, 2019).
Other areas for simple and portable technologies include environmental monitoring and drug testing. These may be based not only on sensor technologies, but on technologies traditionally laboratory based such as separation science and mass spectrometry in a miniaturised or portable format. These possibilities have been exemplified by both hand-held Raman Spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry, with applications such as raw material characterisation, counterfeit medicine identification, narcotics, explosives, hazardous chemicals, food safety, elemental analysis – all giving answers within seconds. After all, if analytical technologies can be miniaturised for space exploration, anything is possible.
Meanwhile, back in the lab…
Advanced laboratory-based analytical science technologies remain essential for delivering the fundamental research to produce diagnostics or miniaturised technologies. For example: the research to identify a specific disease marker and translating this to a simple test. CAMS and UK analytical and measurement science more broadly will drive these innovations – from discovery of technologies, development of robust methods and underpinning science – to translation to simple devices with easy-to-interpret results. The CAMS themes of Point of Use Sensors and Photonics, Complex Mixtures, Separations and Detection, Data Analytics and Novel Instrumentation or Techniques, all strive to meet this objective.
Spreading the word
The analytical and measurement science community should be both excited and proud of the work in this field, which has an unquestionable societal benefit on a global scale. This does set us a challenge: we must continue to tell this story to the public, the media and those who fund our research so that the value is understood and to challenge misconceptions
Therefore, I call upon all of you to communicate our innovations, research impact and value to the individual as widely as possible. After all, uncertainty in the impact of a measurement result can lead to confusion and also distrust of science.
Watch this space for a future blog on effective science communications!