Yale Students Develop Rapid Bacteria Detector

By Carlton Purvis

A team of engineering graduate students at Yale is working to create a new technology that could help prevent widespread food-borne illness and lead to quicker diagnosis of bacterial infections. The device, called alpha screen, is a portable, rapid, pathogen scanner that can detect as few as one bacterium.

“A rapid pathogen screener is a device capable of detecting microorganisms in near real-time, without the use of cultured colonies or a traditional microbiology lab,” PhD student Monika Weber told Security Management. Weber leads the development team.

Development of the device started as an assignment while under instruction of Prof. Mark Reed, the Harold Hodgkinson professor of engineering and applied science. The assignment was to develop a device that had marketable potential.

“We were thinking about what kind of device would be beneficial….We started asking doctors what areas of medical science could be improved,” Weber said.

Doctors told them that bacteria diagnostics would be a promising focus area because of the current time and costs of culture growth – which can sometimes take days or require separate labs. Their comments resonated with Weber, who recently became lactose intolerant because of a bacterial infection. Testing using the alpha screen is 10 to 50 times faster than the current methods—culture growth and polymerase chain reaction. The current cost of one test is estimated at $1-20 times less expensive than current testing methods. Weber says a quicker diagnosis could have prevented her condition.

Weber’s isn’t the first endeavor focused on rapid bacteria detection. Researchers in the past have spent years developing similar technologies, but Weber says variations of the alpha screen are being developed to address all areas that have the need for bacteria detection.

"What makes [alpha screen] different is the fact that it combines all of the key components desired for bacteria detection," Weber said. "Very high sensitivity and high selectivity (the ability to eliminate false positives or false negative responses), -- the crucial features that make a good sensor. It’s portable. The response time is very short, and it’s very cheap. The current technologies can achieve that all individually, however, there is no other system that can combine them all in one,” she said.

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