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U of Alberta Researchers Seek Ways to Rapidly Diagnose Diseases in Developing World

A pair of University of Alberta researchers have each received a $100,000 grant to develop new tests that can be used easily and cheaply to detect diseases in developing nations.

The grants come from the federally funded Grand Challenges Canada, which provides money to develop what it calls “bold new global health ideas.”

The two U of A recipients, John Davis and Darryl Adamko, are from different fields, yet their projects revolve around the same idea of using metabolites — small molecules associated with a biological process in the body — as a method of detection for diseases.

“There’s a lot of literature and more coming out every day that says various metabolites are associated with various diseases, sometimes in blood, sometimes in urine and sometimes in breath,” said Davis, a physicist.

Davis’s project is to create a breath test that would be delivered through a hand-held device similar to a breathalyzer used by police. Patients would blow into the box, which would have the ability to sense a number of different metabolites indicating the presence of diabetes, various cancers, tuberculosis, cholera and other illnesses.

“We have been working on these tiny little vibrating nanomechanical devices that are really sensitive to their external environment and their intrinsic properties,” he said.

Davis uses the analogy of guitar string to describe how the devices work. A guitar string’s sound can be changed several ways, such as by increasing its thickness or tension, or by doing more extreme things like plunging it under water. In the same way, the nanomechanical devices can be altered to become sensitive to various types of molecules, he said.

“If a cop pulls you over and gives you a breathalyzer, he is testing for one thing, ethanol, but what we would like to have is array of devices that are functionalized differently so each string is sensitive to a different thing,” Davis said.

“One of things we still have to do is make these things chemically functional so they respond to particular molecules, because right now they just kind of respond to everything. And we’re trying to make it all miniaturized to be hand held. Right now it’s big, laboratory scale of apparatus.”

Once the development is further along, Davis’s team plans to connect with a researcher in Bangladesh to test the device.

He said for diagnostic technology to work in the developing world, it needs to be portable, rapid and rugged. Many tests currently are done by taking swabs and then growing cultures, which is slow. This is problematic as it often requires patients to travel long distances to a clinic and endure lengthy waits to get results when they need to be at home or work.

A hand-held device could provide results right away, and could even be taken into remote villages rather than having patients come to the clinic.

“Just like the breath analysis a cop does, he knows right away, he doesn’t take a sample, culture it for a few days and then tell you if you can leave the crime scene,” Davis said. “If we can develop this rapid test, even if it were not 100-per-cent accurate, it would tell someone right away whether they needed to do a secondary test or if people were free to go home.”

As for Adamko, a children’s lung disease expert, his project involves using a simple urine test to look for respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis and pneumonia.

There are currently few effective measures of airway diseases that can be done in a family doctor’s office, so the idea is to create something that can be done easily and non-invasively, he said. That’s where metabolite science is handy, because each type of breathing disorder involves a different kind of that can be seen the fluids patients excrete.

“As a pediatrician, when I heard they were doing metabolic analysis in adults using sputum, I said that isn’t going to work for kids because kids aren’t going to spit, but what about urine tests?”

The idea is that children visiting a doctor’s office would provide a urine sample, which would then be sent to a lab. The lab would then send back a metabolic profile of the patient using a roadmap Adamko is developing. His information would tell the doctor that the presence of a particular molecule or set of molecules indicates a particular disease.

“It’s the pattern of metabolites,” he said. “Based on a urine test, you should be able to get an idea of whether they are sick or not sick, what type of breathing disease they have and also whether it’s getting better or worse.”

Adamko, who recently moved back to the University of Saskatchewan, started a company called Respirlyte and maintains a lab at the U of A to further develop the concept. Eventually the plan is to test the project in India.

“I would like to do a clinical trial with a lot of people and going to a place like India would be awesome,” he said.

Davis and Adamko were among 102 researchers selected to receive a Grand Challenges grant out of 436 applications.

Source: Edmonton Journal 

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