New forensic tool to detect infectious diseases

Tests for the detection of infectious diseases in North Queensland will be faster and cheaper, thanks to the purchase of new equipment in James Cook University's School of Biomedical Sciences.

Dr Graham Burgess, from JCU's microbiology and immunology program, said the Australian Research Council had made $108,000 available from Linkage Infrastructure Equipment Finance (LIEF) towards the purchase of $145,000 of new equipment.

"The equipment fills the missing link in our infrastructure and will support the University's research into an extensive range of infectious disease projects. It will also allow us to design new tests for the Townsville Hospital capable of being run on their own equipment," Dr Burgess said.

"The cost of performing assays will go down and the speed at which they can be done will go up. Tests that would have taken a full day previously can now be done in a few hours or even a few minutes. When you are dealing with life-threatening diseases such as melioidosis, this time-saving can potentially help to save a life."

At the core of the process is hardware based on real-time PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) that allows scientists to detect the genetic code of an organism.

"The magnitude of the reaction is dependant on the starting number of copies of the gene. Not only can we detect an organism by recognising its genes, we can also determine how much is present in a sample. In diseases caused by organisms such as hepatitis viruses and HIV, we can use this to monitor the effect of drug therapies," Dr Burgess said.

He said the LIEF grant would allow JCU to purchase three pieces of equipment.

"The first is used to extract the genes from almost 100 samples in each batch. The second is a liquid handling robot that replaces many of the manual steps with a precision that is difficult for a technician to achieve. And the third is used to detect and measure the genes."

Dr Burgess said the equipment was extremely versatile and would allow scientists and medical practitioners to improve their approach to many problems.

"Viral diseases such as dengue and Japanese encephalitis can be detected in the infected mosquitoes while the method is sufficiently sensitive to detect respiratory diseases such as influenza on a simple throat swab. Bacterial diseases such as melioidosis and meningococcal disease can be rapidly detected. Tropical parasitic diseases such as malaria are being targeted and, as a forensic tool, we can determine the animal species that provided a mosquito with its blood meal."

In addition to the equipment, JCU is also purchasing sophisticated computer programs to help design the new assays and process the information generated.

"The possibilities are only limited by the imagination of our research team," Dr Burgess said.

The equipment for detecting infectious diseases was manufactured in Australia by Corbett Research, rapidly becoming a world leader in this field. "There is a considerable cost benefit in purchasing from an Australian manufacturer," Dr Burgess said.

Media contact: Theresa Millard 47814822 or 0412507389

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