Simple and fast detection of small molecules is critical to health and environmental monitoring. Methods for chemical detection often use mass spectrometers or enzymes; the former relies on expensive equipment and the latter is limited to those that can act as enzyme substrates. Affinity reagents like antibodies can target a variety of small-molecule analytes, but the detection requires successful design of chemically conjugated targets or analogs for competitive binding assays. Here, we developed a generalizable method for highly sensitive and specific in-solution detection of small molecules, using cannabidiol (CBD) as an example. Our sensing platform uses gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) functionalized with a pair of chemically induced dimerization (CID) nanobody binders (nano-binders), where CID triggers AuNPs aggregation and sedimentation in the presence of CBD. Despite moderate binding affinities of the two nano-binders to CBD (KDs of ~6 and ~56 μM), a scheme consisting of CBD-AuNP pre-analytical incubation, centrifugation, and electronic detection (ICED) was devised to demonstrate a high sensitivity (limit of detection of ~100 picomolar) in urine and saliva, a relatively short assay time (~2 hours), a large dynamic range (5 logs), and a sufficiently high specificity to differentiate CBD from its analog, tetrahydrocannabinol. The high sensing performance was achieved with the multivalency of AuNP sensing, the ICED scheme that increases analyte concentrations in a small assay volume, and a portable electronic detector. This sensing system is readily coupled to other binders for wide molecular diagnostic applications.
Keywords: Small molecule sensing; cannabidiol; chemically induced dimerization; metal nanoparticles; rapid electronic detection.