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.
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.
The low cost of testing using the alpha screen will be beneficial to developing countries, Weber said—countries where a timely diagnosis could mean the difference between life and death. The device will allow doctor’s offices to make diagnoses in real-time.
For the food industry, the alpha screen has very promising applications as well, she said. “We hope that the alpha-screen technology…will help prevent disease outbreaks, like the 2011 Listeria outbreak in the U.S. and the E. coli outbreak in Germany. We anticipate that alpha-screen will have dramatic implications for domestic and international food security,” she said.
The alpha screen is still in its development stages. The basic version is a battery-powered device about the size of a coin. It can only detect one or two types of bacteria. “However, to meet the needs of prospective customers we have also designed a larger unit, which could detect simultaneously over 100 different types of bacteria,” Weber said.
The team is working to raise funds for further development and prospective commercialization. Earlier this month, they moved $20,000 closer to that goal after winning the Create the Future design contest. The contest awarded prizes to recognize research efforts in engineering focused on benefitting humanity, the environment, and the economy. More than 900 product ideas from 50 countries were entered.
Weber said she hopes the publicity for their work will pay off for the project.
“We hope to attract people and institutions that would sponsor research and investors to move the project along,” Weber said.
Weber’s isn’t the first endeavor focused on rapid bacteria detection. Researchers in the past have spent years developing similar technologies.
photo from Yale News