This group of Australian students has invented a new way to diagnose diseases — and it could lead to a tool that's better than what we've got now.
It's got the power to save lives, and in a few years you may even see it on a cellphone.
In 2014, the team of undergrads entered a prestigious biomolecular design competition at Harvard University from halfway around the world — and took home first place.
They call themselves Team EchiDNA. They're a group of Australian undergrads led by Dr. Lawrence Lee of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney.
So how did they win? They looked at nature.
Together with Lee, the team designed the Cooperative Molecular Biosensor that can detect viruses and diseases. They drew their inspiration from the design models found in nature.
"By copying nature, we're constructing new technologies that can potentially be used to drive a rapid diagnostic device," Lee explained to me via email.
The Cooperative Molecular Biosensor is a tiny sensor made up of a ring of beacons that light up when they bind to the target DNA — of a virus, pathogen, or even mutation.
Is the virus present? If yes, the ring lights up. That's all there is to it. You can see more of a scientific explanation in their project video.
But the bottom line: more sensitive testing and fewer false positives. Yes!
A group of students pulling this off is impressive. The short time frame they did it in is even more so.
The team was made up of undergraduates, and as Lee describes, had many other student responsibilities to worry about.
"We started the project quite late with only a few months for everything to come together," he says, explaining the challenges they've faced. "The team consisted of undergraduate students who still had to attend lectures, submit assignments, and sit exams."
Giving hope to procrastinators everywhere!
Winning the contest was just the beginning. This invention has the potential to revolutionize the way we diagnose diseases like Ebola.
At the same time the students were busy winning awards for their invention, Ebola was wreaking havoc on parts of the world. And flat-out scaring the rest of it.
During the outbreak, Lee says, "there was a clear need for definitive and rapid diagnostics of Ebola so that patients could be identified, isolated, and treated quickly to stem the spread of the disease."
Because the initial symptoms of Ebola are so similar to those of other diseases (malaria, typhoid fever, other bad stuff), diagnosis in the early stages can be very difficult. With current technology, a patient may be in the hospital for multiple days before a positive Ebola diagnosis is made.
Team EchiDNA saw the need to rapidly diagnose Ebola and tailored their design to help fill that void.
The team created their design to target the DNA of the Ebola virus — although, as Lee explains, "I must stress that the capacity to detect Ebola DNA sequences in laboratory setting is a long way from robust and accurate diagnostics in patient samples."
In other words — the device is a long way from being sent into the field. But they are working to get there.
And once the design is perfected, it can be tailored to diagnose a wide range of other specific diseases: tuberculosis, HIV, or even a common flu.
So what's next? Lee said he and his lab (which still includes a couple members of the winning team) are working to refine the sensor and make it "so sophisticated you can test for bacteria or viruses by plugging a blood sample into your mobile phone," according to their press release.
These students should be so proud — and we should be so thankful for the young brains around the world helping to transform the future.
The technology being developed could drastically change the course of an Ebola outbreak — and other diseases — and stop it in its tracks before it can get out of hand. Life-saving!