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Jaren Wilkey, BYU
BYU Professors Aaron Hawkins (bottom), Richard Robinson (right), Bill Pitt (top) and Adam Woolley (left) collaborated on a project to address nucleic acid-based identification of multi-drug resistant pathogens using integrated optofluidic platforms.

PROVO — Four BYU researchers from three disciplines are teaming up to develop a one-hour diagnostic test for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

BYU is one of nine institutions across the country receiving a five-year, $5.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to tackle the problem.

"We kind of asked the community to jump pretty high for this one," said Alec Ritchie, a program officer with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a branch of the NIH.

Every year, more than 2 million people in the U.S. get antibiotic-resistant infections, also called “nightmare bacteria” or “superbugs”, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, approximately 23,000 people die as a result.

Overuse of antibiotics has led to some of these bacteria becoming immune even to the most powerful antibiotics. It currently takes labs up to three days to identify the bacteria and the correct antibiotic to use — time that could mean the difference between life and death, said Ritchie.

Aaron Hawkins, an electrical and computer engineering professor and the lead investigator on the project, said his team's approach is to develop a tool so sensitive that it can detect even miniscule amounts of bacterial DNA.

"We tend to want to put everything onto a chip, so that's what I will try to do," joked Hawkins, who comes from the semiconductor industry. "My graduate students will build structures on the silicon that try to mimic what we would do in a larger lab in smaller volumes."

And by smaller, he means much smaller. Hawkins is talking femtoliters of blood (there's micro-, there's nano-, there's pico- and then, finally, there's femtoliters.)

This technology is so new that it doesn't even have a name yet, Hawkins said. Some are calling it optofluidics or biophotonics.

Hawkins teamed up with three co-investigators at BYU, including Rich Robison, a microbiology professor, William Pitt, a chemical engineering professor and Adam Woolley, a chemistry professor.

They also are teaming with Salt Lake City-based biomedical company Great Basin Scientific, because the NIH is asking the researchers to make a product that works not only in theory but that can go straight to hospitals and clinics.

The research

First, Pitt and Robison are going to develop a way to purify blood samples to capture just the bacteria, removing the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Woolley will develop the middle step: breaking apart the bacteria to release the DNA — sometimes only 10 to 100 copies per milliliter of blood — and attach molecules that will glow when hit with a laser.

Hawkins is going to create a chip that has light-carrying capabilities, using the same techniques people use to make computer circuits. These microstructures, or "waveguides," will move light around as efficiently as possible to make the DNA glow.

The scientists at Great Basin will come in at the end to help the researchers adapt the product to Great Basin's existing technology. The idea is that the chip will eventually be fitted onto a plastic cartridge a little smaller than a hand that slides into a processor-sized machine, which will mix, stir, pump and detect the DNA.

Based on the fluorescent signal that the DNA gives off, doctors would be able to tell not only what kind of bacteria it is but also what antibiotics it's resistant to.

The whole process, from blood draw to results, could take less than an hour.

Will it work?

Ritchie said the project is ambitious; the majority of research projects funded by the NIH never make it to market.

"It's tough to say, but I'd be really happy even if one of these in, say, 10 years [made it]", Ritchie said.

That’s why this grant emphasizes not just the lab research but also getting a beneficial product into the market, he said.

Of the nine grants, three went to private companies. And the six academic institutions — among them Johns Hopkins University, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley — were required to have a corporate partner.

"The academic environments, they have great ideas, they have strong microbiology, they can have strong engineering, they can have strong clinical expertise, they have the idea or they might have the patent," Ritchie said. But they need an industrial partner to "bring it home."

It's not a “typical route" for the NIH, Woolley said, but it’s one that could bring the public and private sectors together in a powerful way.

"It's definitely an ambitious project, but the funding goes through early 2020,” Woolley said. “The hope is by the end of that we'll have something that could really make a difference in treating a really important medical problem."

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