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INNOVATION: Pomona Chemistry Research Team Works Toward Better, Faster Way to Detect Respiratory Infections

Alex Antonoplis ’14 at work in the lab.

Alex Antonoplis ’14 at work in the lab.

Working in Professor Taylor's lab
Prof. Charles Taylor, Kelly Park ’12, Alex Antonoplis ’14, Constance Wu '14

Prof. Charles Taylor, Kelly Park ’12, Alex Antonoplis ’14, Constance Wu '14

This summer, Chemistry Professor Charles Taylor and student researchers are carrying on work toward a faster, better method for identifying dangerous respiratory ailments that are often acquired in hospitals. The technology could end up becoming a mainstay of medical care in years to come.

Hospitalized patients placed on mechanical breathing assistance can contract infections such as ventilator-associated pneumonia, or VAP. Catching the illness early on offers the best chance for successful treatment, but VAP typically isn’t noticed until the infection has already progressed to a serious stage. Even then, it can take a series of time-consuming tests to make a clear diagnosis.

So Taylor and student researchers Ryan Dodson ’15, Michael Etzel ’15 and Paige Oliver ’16 are working on a system that will speed up diagnosis by using a breathalyzer-type machine to collect molecules from a patient’s breath. Instead of spending time in the lab growing cell cultures from the lungs to look for pneumonia-causing bacteria, medical professionals can analyze chemicals in the breath to detect what are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), waste products that are released as part of the cellular metabolism of infectious microorganisms.

"We believe that the main impact of this method would be fewer deaths related to hospital acquired pulmonary infections,” says Taylor. “This would, of course, be accompanied by reduced medical costs due to catching these pathogens before the infection is too severe. Fortunately, this technique would not be limited to pulmonary infections but given enough time, it could actually be used to identify nearly any type of infection.”

Funded by a $600,000 National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation grant, the project is a multi-year effort. This past school year, Professor Taylor worked with a pair of student research assistants, Alex Antonoplis ’14 and Constance Wu ’14, and Pomona alumna Kelly Park ’12

The Taylor lab’s approach relies on a technique called Raman spectroscopy that uses lasers to make a profile of the chemical bonds within a molecule. Every compound has a unique profile, allowing researchers to identify specific VOCs associated with strains of bacteria that are known to cause pneumonia. This way, health-care providers know the bacterial culprits are present without ever actually seeing them under the microscope. “It’s like a fingerprint of a fingerprint,” says Wu.

Along with cutting down on treatment time, the new system could offer serious benefits to communities with minimal medical resources, such as those in developing countries. Unlike more conventional methods, the Raman-based analysis device is fairly compact and won’t require a full laboratory to operate, reducing costs. The research group also envisions a portable component for the sample collector, enabling doctors to reach more people, more easily.

“This way, you don’t have to bring the whole device to a patient’s bedside. You can just have them breathe into something, collect it, and then take that off,” Wu says.

The research has promising applications beyond dealing with just a single illness. Scientists are currently exploring the potential of VOCs as a powerful diagnostic tool for detecting lung cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases.

And Taylor points out that while the technology is cutting edge, the basic concept of using the breath as a clue to people’s health is an old idea in the history of medicine.

“Smelling a patient’s breath has been used by doctors even long before modern medicine. Even in Hippocrates’ time, a physician or healer could diagnose illness based on the characteristic odors in their breath even if they didn’t understand the underlying biology behind it.”

The project was sparked by a collaboration between the Taylor lab and Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), a graduate school for applied life sciences that is part of the Claremont University Consortium. Conversations between Professor Taylor and his colleagues at KGI led to a proposal to investigate some of the potentials of Raman spectroscopy. “It’s been a great opportunity for us to work together and build bridges between different institutions,” Taylor says.

As part of the process, Taylor and his research team are partnering with local biotech companies , improving efficiency in the design process by tapping into their respective design strengths. “This helps us identify areas for improvement during the proof-of-concept stage” says Taylor. He estimates that a working model could be available to hospitals and medical clinics within the next few years.

Wu and Antonoplis spent several summers at Pomona improving the Raman method as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). They’ve also were able to use the findings from their research as the basis for their senior thesis projects. The pair received invaluable help from Kelly Park ’12, who worked on the project as an undergrad and returned to campus last year to be a lab assistant in the Chemistry Department.

It’s been a challenge to come up with an untested system, the group says, but it’s also given them an opportunity to be original and inventive by solving the problems that inevitably pop up along the way.

“We’re creating a new method, and so that’s sometimes frustrating in the sense that you don’t have an answer,” says Wu. “There aren’t many references that tell you exactly what you want to know. But it also gives you a lot of chances to be innovative and to create.”

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