Breaking down barriers

Dr. Christa Brousseau in the lab

Tuberculosis is a highly infectious bacterial disease that is currently responsible for more than 21% of all deaths in South Africa. In addition, 70% of TB patients in that country are HIV positive. As a result, rapid detection of these and other diseases in local clinical settings is vital to delivering fast and effective treatment.

Dr. Christa Brosseau, an assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Mary’s University, is part of a global team conducting research on a handheld medical device that could be used to quickly detect TB, HIV, and malaria in developing countries. Brosseau’s research group is a sub-grantee under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Blackburn at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

“Our project is aimed at using SERS, a novel nanoscience sensing method, to detect TB rapidly and with excellent sensitivity using DNA, which is engineered to bind directly to TB biomarkers in patients’ urine samples,” says Brosseau. Using TB as the model disease and urine as the model sample (blood, phlegm, salvia, and stool are other potential test samples), she and her Saint Mary’s team—a postdoctoral fellow, a graduate student, three undergrads in the summer, and a U.S.-based consultant—are investigating how to selectively remove one or two TB biomarkers from the more than 200 total biomarkers in a urine sample.

The multimillion-dollar project is divided into 20 global teams, each of which received significant funding for Phase 1 research. Funding came from Grand Challenges Canada, a Toronto-based organization that supports global health initiatives and that funds innovators in low- and middle-income countries and Canada. Each team must have a partner in a developing nation, as well as a business partner to advise on commercialization.

The project is divided into two phases. Brosseau is currently in the second year of the three-year first phase, in which the researchers are thinking about how the device will work, such as how to collect a pain-free blood sample. Phase II will comprise years four and five, which is when the device’s components will be assembled and tested.

In theory, the medical device could be market ready as soon as 2015. “That’s a very fast timeline, which is exciting,” says Brosseau. Between now and then, researchers will investigate such barriers as ensuring that the device will work in the high humidity and heat of the developing countries and will run on batteries in case a power source isn’t available.

The goal is to receive test-sample results within 30 minutes after they’re taken so the person who administered the test can tell patients whether or not they have TB, HIV, or malaria right away. “That’s important, because nearly 40% of patients won’t return to the clinic for their diagnosis or treatment if they have to wait to get the result,” says Brosseau, explaining that many of them have walked for hours to reach the clinic. Patients are currently waiting up to 16 weeks to get TB results.

“Grand Challenges Canada, with funding from the Government of Canada, is pleased to support the work of Dr. Brosseau and her collaborator, Dr. Jonathan Blackburn, to develop a portable hand-held device that will bring simple, rapid, and affordable diagnosis to the point of care,” says Rebecca Lackman, the Grand Challenges Canada program officer overseeing the project. “This will allow patients to quickly receive the treatment they need, ultimately saving countless lives.” 

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