Professor Piet Bergveld And the ISFET-sensor

In 2003, after 38 years of service at the university, professor of Biosensors Piet Bergveld bade farewell to University of Twente. He was passionate about technology that brings practical benefits to people and their health. He is most famous for inventing the ISFET sensor used in chemical and biomedical applications, and he took also part in the foundation of the MESA+ research institute.

In 1960, Piet Bergveld (1940) began studying Electrical Engineering at the Technische School Eindhoven (Eindhoven Technical School, now Technical University Eindhoven). After gaining his Master’s degree from the Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium (Philips Physics Laboratory), in 1965 Bergveld joined what was then Technische Hogeschool Twente (‘Twente Technical College’, THT) as an academic staff member, where he focused on measuring electrical activity in the human brain.

From the very first years of THT, Bergveld was a driver of biomedical-technological research. In 1970, he presented his ‘ion sensitive field effect transistor’ (ISFET) sensor, and three years later he gained his PhD with a thesis exploring the possibilities of this sensor in more detail.

Bergveld’s ISFET sensor is used to measure ion concentrations (or pH levels) in specific solutions. A change in the ion concentrations alters the amount of current running through the transistor, and the user receives a signal. The sensor makes it possible to measure not only the activity around a nerve or muscle, but also the activity of tiny axons (the thin offshoots from a neuron that are essential to passing on information within the nervous system). Until Bergveld developed his sensor, these measurements were taken using glass electrodes that couldn’t be miniaturized to the extent needed to measure the activity of axons. The ISFET sensor opened up a world of possibilities for chemical and biomedical applications.

Surprisingly, at first there was little interest in Bergveld’s invention: scientists and the business world preferred to use the familiar glass electrodes. But Bergveld didn’t give up. He published extensively about his invention and even went a step further: he worked in his shed to put together his own homemade EMI amplifiers, including an ISFET sensor, and sent these amplifiers to colleagues all around the world. This somewhat unorthodox method introduced his ISFET sensor into the field.

In the meantime he secretly recorded the results: between 1,000 and 1,500 publications used measurements taken with his ISFET sensors. That impressive fact helped Bergveld to finally attract the attention of developers. Cordis, which specialized in pacemakers and catheters, was the first company to adopt the sensors. Together with Bergveld they developed a catheter that could measure pH values in blood during an operation. The ISFET sensor is still used in a lot of medical equipment today.

Bergveld’s passion for using technology in health applications led to his being one of the founding fathers of the MESA+ research institute at the University of Twente. It also gave him a pretty crowded trophy cabinet: in 1995 he was awarded the Jacob Kistemaker Prize, in 1997 he became a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), and in 2003 he was knighted as a Ridder in de Orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw (Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion). As an extra tribute to this top-tier researcher, the UT BIOS/Lab-on-a-Chip department also organizes an annual Bergveld lecture.

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