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Purdue Researchers Take on Mosquito Diseases Like Zika and West Nile with New Device

The number of cases in the continental U.S. of mosquito-borne diseases, such as Zika, dengue, West Nile, and chikungunya, has climbed over the past two decades.

To help combat these tropical diseases, a team of researchers at Purdue University has created a startup company — SMK Diagnostics — that is developing a device to rapidly detect and monitor various mosquito-borne diseases.

Many current methods take days or weeks to determine whether a virus is present in a sample. Even then, these techniques often can detect that a flavivirus — a strain of virus often carried by mosquitoes — is present, but cannot discern whether it is Zika, dengue, or chikungunya.

Now Purdue biologists and material scientists are working together to create a biosensor that they hope will improve the speed, specificity, sensitivity, and portability of current testing techniques for a range of mosquito-borne viruses.

“Our device responds within 30 minutes and doesn’t require trained people,” said Lia Stanciu, a material scientist who helped develop the device. “It’s fast and portable.”

How does it work?

To develop their sensor, the researchers take advantage of the fact that many of these mosquito-borne viruses are composed of single-stranded ribonucleic acids, or RNAs. Like DNA, each unit in the RNA sequence can bind to just one other complementary unit — like two puzzle pieces coming together.

The researchers can then create new biomolecule “probes” composed of specific sequences that will match and bind only to a given target RNA virus, for example, Zika or dengue virus. The biomolecule probe acts like a lock that can only be opened by a specific virus key.

The biomolecule probe is attached to an electrode and when a target virus is present, it binds to the probe — opening the door, so to speak — which the electrode senses and alerts the device’s user to the presence of that virus.

“It’s remarkable in that it is very specific and you can control the specificity by your design of your probes,” said Richard Kuhn, co-founder of SMK Diagnostics and a biologist at Purdue University who recently determined the structure of the Zika virus. “It’s incredibly sensitive in that it picks up very low level signals.”

The electrodes are printed on a film that will ultimately be connected to a portable electronic reader. Ideally, multiple electrodes could be printed on a single film, meaning each biosensor unit could be used to look for multiple viruses at a time.

“In any area of technology, we want to do things better and faster,” Kuhn told IndyStar. “What we have here is a fairly rapid and fairly precise assay that out-competes what’s currently being used.”

Rapid identification of certain viruses can support earlier delivery of life-saving treatments. And for viruses such as Zika and dengue that don’t currently have specific anti-viral treatments, identification of the viral infection can still aid in patient care. For example, Zika infection is known to cause serious birth defects. Thus, women testing positive for Zika could make more informed decisions about future or current pregnancies.  

In addition to these diagnostic tests, the researchers envision that their biosensor can be used to ensure blood transfusion safety at blood banks and hospitals, to track or contain disease movement, and to manage mosquito populations.

“If you find infected mosquitoes in one area, you can communicate with the local authorities in that area, and say there is a problem,” Stanciu said. “We can spray there before they go and infect other people or areas.”

Scaling up the manufacture to join the Internet of Things

So far, the startup has patented their biosensor creation technique, and they are now working to optimize the device’s portability and to scale up manufacturing with printing through the Scalable Manufacturing of Aware and Responsive Thin films (SMART) consortium at Purdue University.

This research initiative combines the expertise of industry partners, including Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. and United Technologies, and university researchers to help fledgling companies, such as SMK Diagnostics, develop scalable, low-cost manufacturing techniques for new sensing technologies.

The mosquito-borne disease sensor created by SMK Diagnostics is just one example of a device that will become part of the burgeoning “Internet of Things.” Often referred to as IoT, it is a network that interconnects sensors embedded in everyday objects that send and receive information among devices.

Just as Silicon Valley revolutionized the computing world, many believe that IoT technology will transform data collection, measurement and optimization for product use and safety in our daily lives.

At Purdue’s Birck Nanotechnology Center, various companies and researchers are creating biosensors with wide-ranging applications: a soil-nitrogen sensor for agriculture, smart packaging for food safety, and human performance monitors for health care, among others.

“Most of our manufacturing today is the conventional type — parts of cars and so on — but if we can bring some of these new factories and technologies for sensors and IoT to the region, we could become the manufacturing hot bed in the U.S. and for the world,” said Ali Shakouri, director of the Birck Nanotechnology Center. “If we keep that here, then the design and new ideas will be here. Who knows, we could be the IoT Plains of the United States.”

By creating a common platform for multiple sensor applications, the SMART consortium will lower the cost of producing this technology for all types of sensors, making it easier for SMK Diagnostics to rapidly make the large numbers of sensors that are required for future stages of field testing of their mosquito-borne disease sensor.

The SMART consortium leaders hope that their efforts will push Indiana to become a global leader and manufacturer in the IoT revolution, giving Silicon Valley a run for its money.As for the founders of SMK Diagnostics, they are excited that their device to detect mosquito-borne diseases could improve human health, both globally and locally.

“People working at companies and universities in Indiana (are) partners in global health. Global health always turns at some point into local health,” said Kuhn, SMK’s co-founder. “Things that might work in India or Thailand (now), probably are going to have a positive impact on people in Indiana at some point.”


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