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UVa Students Design New Method of Disease Detection

December 19, 2012

The number of whooping cough cases reported in the United States has doubled over the last year, but a group of University of Virginia students is making strides in making detection easier and cheaper.

The group's innovative idea has the potential to significantly impact the methods we use to detect diseases, and they created it by repurposing technology already found in another trusty tool -- a pregnancy test.

"No one expects it. It's such a common technology that they take it for granted," said UVa. fifth-year biochemistry and physics major Shaun Moshasha. "But it's actually very sophisticated, and it can be used for multiple things, as we're now discovering."

The new detection method would speed up the process of identifying Bordetella pertussis, the bacteria that leads to whooping cough.

The team's work leveraging the technology from the pregnancy tests has already won them a slew of awards and recognition, including the top spot at UVa.'s Entrepreneurship Cup.

And that positive feedback is what's driving them to take it to the next level.

"It enabled us to think past just the science and more towards what does this mean for the community? What does this mean for the average person? How can we actually apply this to the world?" said Alex Zorychta, a UVa. fourth-year biomedical engineering student on the research team.

It could impact global health, according to UVa. biomedical engineering chair and professor Fred Epstein.

"To be able to have a cheap, inexpensive, widely-available diagnostic test that can be of use here in the United States, potentially in underserved areas, and then internationally in the developing world, this could be a very important technology for detection of whooping cough and lots of other diseases," said Epstein.

While the project has been student-led, the teammates have been able to collaborate with several UVa. faculty members, including Kim Kelly, Eric Hewlett and David Chen, to utilize their expertise to fully develop the research.

And their work isn't finished just yet. Zorychta and Moshasha said they want to expand the idea both scientifically and commercially, increasing the number of diseases it can detect and by getting their discovery out of the lab and into doctors' offices around the world.

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