Halting the tsunami’s infectious legacy

Biosensors developed in the lab of Luis Garcia-Rubio can detect infectious diseases in blood and bodily fluids as well as identify pathogenic microorganisms in contaminated water.

Biosensors developed at the University of South Florida lab of Luis Garcia-Rubio, a chemical engineer at the university’s College of Marine Science (CMS), can detect infectious diseases in blood and bodily fluids as well as identify pathogenic microorganisms in contaminated water.

The new sensors could prove an effective front line defence against diseases emerging after disasters such as the recent tsunami. They may also help reduce the annual rates of illness and deaths caused by contaminated water and unsanitary conditions worldwide.

“In the wake of the recent tsunami, it was anticipated that infectious diseases could increase dramatically in affected areas,” Garcia-Rubio said. “Public health officials rightfully fear thousands more will die from infectious water-borne and water related diseases after the tsunami.

“When people are forced to live in crowded refugee camps, they are more easily exposed to infectious diseases that spread quickly due to a lack of clean drinking water and unsanitary conditions.”

The CMS research group, comprised of engineers, physicists microbiologists and chemists, is now testing portable, miniaturised biosensors that can – in real-time and continuously – monitor for a number of infectious diseases using as little as a single drop of blood. The sensors then wirelessly send data to a remote location for analysis.

“By optically identifying how an organism absorbs and scatters light, our new, minimally invasive technology identifies the light wave spectrum in a sample collected on-site,” explained Garcia-Rubio. “Because each organism absorbs and scatters light differently, we can analyse the light wave spectrum and scatter pattern and identify an organism in the sample by comparing those patterns with known, catalogued samples.”

Up to now, said Garcia-Rubio, without expensive processes and highly trained personnel, there have been no portable instruments capable of detecting and classifying either microorganisms or cells in real time.

After patenting their technology, the research group has moved into field experiments, confident that in the near future their advancement will be available to rapidly detect infectious diseases, commonplace after natural disasters; and waterborne pathogens that can occur in the drinking water of developed countries.

According to Debra Huffman, a collaborator of Garcia-Rubio’s lab, the new biosensors can detect malarial parasites, the dengue virus that causes dengue fever, e. coli, salmonella, shigalla and listeria as well as causes of bacterial dysentery, such as cryptosporidium (protozoan parasites). The sensors can also identify bacillus antrhacis, anthrax that can be used in terrorist weapons.