Hand-Held Device Offers Opportunities for Low-Cost Diagnosis of Diseases and Pathogens

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December 7, 2011

Using new technology and innovative research, Syed Hashsham and his research team have developed a hand-held, low-cost device that can perform genetic analysis. Hashsham, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, worked with other researchers as well as a team of students to develop the Gene-Z, which can be used for everything from detecting cancer to instantly identifying diseases attacking crops and plants.

The Gene-Z device is operated using smartphone technology and performs genetic analysis on microRNAs and other genetic markers. Hashsham recently demonstrated the potential of the Gene-Z at the National Institutes of Health's first Cancer Detection and Diagnostics Conference and again at the National Plant Diagnostic Network's (NPDN) conference.

"Gene-Z has the capability to screen for established markers of cancer at extremely low costs in the field," Hashsham says. "Because it is a hand-held device operated by a battery and chargeable by solar energy, it is extremely useful in limited-resource settings."

Hashsham is working with Reza Nassiri, director of MSU's Institute of International Health and assistant dean in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, on the medical capabilities for the device and establishing connections with physicians worldwide.

Since cancer diagnostics and rapid screening methods currently are not suitable for low-income and resource-limited countries, Nassiri says a concentrated effort should be made to develop more appropriate and cost-effective technologies such as the one developed by Hashsham for widespread global use.

To use the Gene-Z device to find pathogens, farmers and field scientists take a swab for pathogens and transfer the sample to a microfluidic chip, which is inserted into the device. Used with an iPod Touch or Android-based tablet, Gene-Z can identify the pathogen, its genotype and its amount in 10 to 30 minutes. The traditional approach to identifying plant pathogens involves collecting field samples, sending them to a laboratory, and awaiting the results.

"This is exactly the kind of new information that we like to share with our members during our conferences," says Ray Hammerschmidt, chairperson of MSU's plant pathology department and NPDN regional director. "Our goal is to stay ahead of the multitude of plant pathogens and pests that threaten the world's food supply. So when we learned of Gene-Z's potential, we were excited about having its first public plant pathogen demonstration at our conference."

In addition to detecting cancer and plant pathogens, the Gene-Z device can be used to screen for dozens of pathogens in food, animals, and humans and is also being developed to diagnose routine tuberculosis and drug-resistant TB, determine HIV virus levels during treatment, and monitor overall antibiotic resistance.

"Demonstrating the performance of Gene-Z in the field and in clinical settings is the critical next step," Hashsham says. He is establishing key collaborations with a number of organizations and experts to demonstrate the usefulness of the device. The goal is to meet most of the requirements dictated by ASSURED criteria (affordable; sensitive; specific; user-friendly, i.e., simple to perform in a few steps with minimal training; robust and rapid; equipment free; and deliverable to those who need the test).

Gene-Z is ready to be manufactured, and Hashsham is working with MSU Technologies to bring the product to market.

The device was developed using a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to MSU and AquaBioChip, a startup company. Hashsham was the lead investigator. Co-PIs were James Tiedje, University Distinguished Professor in MSU's Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics; and Erdogan Gulari, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan.

Working with Hashsham in the development of the Gene-Z device was a team of graduate students from MSU's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Robert Stedtfeld, now a post-doc, was the development team leader. Other team members were Farhan Ahmad and Greg Seyrig, who are currently completing their PhDs; and Dieter Tourlousse, who recently completed his PhD degree. The cancer marker work related to microRNA for Gene-Z was done by Maggie Kronlein, an undergraduate researcher.

Above photo by G.L. Kohuth