Published on 17 September 2012
17 September 2012
A single-use, disposable dipstick could soon be developed to rapidly detect some of the world’s deadliest viruses – including Hendra virus – thanks to new research at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
Senior Lecturer in Molecular Engineering Joanne Macdonald, 37, has received a $120,000 grant from the Queensland Government to develop a diagnostic tool that uses molecular circuitry to detect a range of viruses.
These include Hendra, Australian bat lyssavirus, Nipah, Kunjin/West Nile, Murray Valley encephalitis and Japanese encephalitis.
Dr Macdonald said the target viruses were chosen due to the severity of their symptoms and because they had either been detected in Queensland or efforts were being made to keep them out of the State.
“What happens now is that patients are swabbed for viruses and a sample is sent to the lab to run a multitude of tests involving very expensive electronic devices,” she said.
“What I would like to do is design a system where we use molecules themselves to detect viruses, and the results are provided on a little device right there at the doctor’s surgery.
“Think of it like a pregnancy test stick, although this is a stick which could test for about 20 viruses and the results are displayed as a single word or code.”
Dr Macdonald said she anticipated the system would supply patient results within 90 minutes and that this early detection would help contain outbreaks and improve both patient and animal care.
“What is frustrating is that when you get sick, you want to know what it is, whether it’s infectious, how long it’ll last and whether you need to stay home from work,” she said. “But usually further testing isn’t done because it is too expensive.”
Dr Macdonald arrived at USC in late 2011 after relocating from New York City. Her DNA computing research at Columbia University had included building a molecular automation that was able to play tic-tac-toe interactively against a human opponent.
She said she would like to develop a masters program at USC to train scientists in the emerging field of molecular engineering, which applies an engineering philosophy for the creation of complex molecular devices.
“USC is uniquely poised to host this type of research and launch a molecular engineering program because the disciplines of education, engineering and science are all combined within a single school,” she said.
“It’s great to be given the opportunity to work in all three areas because usually when you go to a university you get locked into a department focusing on one research area. USC seems very open to the idea of bridging all three fields together.”
Dr Macdonald graduated from St Peter’s Lutheran College at Indooroopilly in 1992 and completed a science degree and a PhD in virology at the University of Queensland.
She said her interest in virology began after she was struck down with a virus in high school forcing her to miss about six months of school.
— Michelle Widdicombe