New federal funding could help SFU save millions of lives

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Lab-on-a-chip technology could mean the difference between quick diagnosis and too-late treatment

By Kristina Charania

Photos by SFU PAMR

In some rural African villages, children are underfed and have little access to safe water and clean toilets, resulting in thousands of fatalities caused by infantile diarrhea. Such fatalities can reach nearly 2,000 per day on the continent, according to a Water Aid estimate. Once infected, two main options remain: multiple treatments with antibiotics administered based on a doctor’s recommendation, or no treatment at all. Both will usually result in death.

Working towards a solution to this crisis, SFU engineering professor Ash Parameswaran is developing new technology in the hopes of facilitating the process of diagnosis and treatment. Parameswaran plans to take the lab tests needed for correct antibiotic prescriptions and condense them into mobile phone accessories that are inexpensive, user-friendly, and accessible to those living in remote areas.

Six years ago, Parameswaran travelled to India to speak to a group about technology development, and in that process he received queries from researchers wishing to develop discrete on-location testing for infections like infantile diarrhea — an infection usually caused by E. coli. “That’s when the group in India and the group here at SFU decided to put our heads together and see how this could be done,” said Parameswaran.

“In developing areas of Africa and India, doctors will administer one antibiotic and then wait two or three days to see what happens to their patient. If it doesn’t cure the disease, they’ll try another drug,” continued Parameswaran. “Sometimes this kind of testing is fatal for newborn infants because their bodies can’t handle the drugs. This is why it’s crucial we determine which antibiotic should be administered quickly and correctly.”

His team now consists of two SFU graduate students, four SFU undergraduate students, and two graduate students from India with expertise in microbiology and electrochemistry. The team is also supplemented by the expertise of Dr. Peter Unrau from SFU’s Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and Dr. Craig Scratchley from the School of Engineering Science.

Traditionally, the textbook technique for determining the correct antibiotics for a bacterial disease is a long process: it involves taking a feces sample from a patient, sending it to a lab for analysis, finding a suitable antibiotic or making an antibiotic cocktail, and sending the results back to the patient’s general practitioner. This takes several days — long enough for an infected individual to succumb to the disease in some of the cases.

Parameswaran’s first step was to see if this process could be done on a smaller scale. “Initially, we built a small chip to see whether this textbook technique could be implemented on a chip. That was successful, and we were able to publish that work,” he said.

His team’s next move was to brainstorm the steps necessary to turn this technology into an easily usable Android phone accessory. “If a person has to be trained in a laboratory for a number of years to use this technology, it isn’t applicable in a rural setting,” said Parameswaran. “We chose to develop an Android app because Android phones are the most common in India or Africa.”

With this proposal, Parameswaran’s team approached Grand Challenges Canada, a federally-funded organization that awards $10.9 million annually to projects aiming to better healthcare. Grand Challenges accepted their plan and granted them $100,000 in seed money to develop a systematic electrochemical test for their gadget.

For phase one of their research, Parameswaran estimates that it will take roughly one year to create a validatable prototype that can eventually be streamlined into their final product. The accessory will produce an antibiogram that will identify the correct antibiotic to prescribe.

“Of course, it won’t look very compact or elegant at first. It’ll probably occupy a tabletop, but we will be able to show it works,” said Parameswaran. “If Grand Challenges is convinced by our work, they will take us to phase two, which is when industries will become involved.”

Most importantly, correct drug prescription and use will slow down the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains. When the wrong antibiotics are used, the bug within a patient will not be killed; rather, they will adapt to the antibiotic and become resistant. “Bugs are intelligent — maybe even more intelligent than we are. A bug will understand the mechanism of an antibiotic and then develop immunity to it,” said Parameswaran.

“If the physician doesn’t make the right initial diagnosis, the bug in the child will develop multi-strain resistance. That will actually cause even more damage, which is why the first diagnosis and prescription should be done correctly.”

Parameswaran now awaits the two Indian graduate students who are travelling to work at SFU laboratories in June. “We’re looking forward to having those students come and work with us, and really excited about launching this project,” he concluded.