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  5. Biomedical engineer receives $2.5M Grand Challenges Point-of Care Diagnostics Grant

Biomedical engineer receives $2.5M Grand Challenges Point-of Care Diagnostics Grant

David Beebe

Biomedical Engineering Professor David Beebe

A biomedical engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will receive a Point-of-Care Diagnostics grant through Grand Challenges in Global Health. Created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the initiative seeks to engage creative minds across scientific disciplines—including those who have not traditionally taken part in health research—to work on solutions that could lead to breakthrough advances for those in the developing world. With his grant, David Beebe, a professor of biomedical engineering, will streamline methods for preparing patient samples such as blood and urine, among others, for point-of-care diagnostics in developing countries.

The technology could be useful anywhere that quick, accurate lab results are needed. Beebe and his collaborator, Richard Burgess, a UW-Madison professor emeritus of oncology, will use the Grand Challenges grant to adapt the technology to work in concert with emerging point-of-care analysis techniques and to the unique challenges of the developing world. “Increasingly, one of the bottlenecks in diagnostic testing and laboratory analysis is on the sample preparation end,” says Beebe, a pioneer of microfluidics technologies. “Tremendous improvements have been made in the area of downstream detection and analysis technology—but if you can't feed the samples in fast enough, it limits the overall speed and throughput of the process."

The Grand Challenges Point-of-Care Diagnostics program provides funding to scientists and researchers worldwide to create technologies and components to assess conditions and pathogens at the point-of-care in the developing world.  Beebe’s project is one of 22 Grand Challenges Point-of Care Diagnostics grants announced December 16. 

“New and improved diagnostics to use at the point-of-care can help health workers around the world save countless lives,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Our hope is that these bold ideas lead to affordable, easy-to-use tools that can rapidly diagnose diseases and trigger timelier treatment in resource-poor communities.”

Projects that are receiving funding show promise in creating Point-of-Care Diagnostics that will be easy to use, low cost and otherwise appropriate so that they achieve significant impact and rapid uptake in resource-poor settings.

Preparing a sample for laboratory testing typically involves binding cells, proteins or genetic markers to a solid material, then washing away the unnecessary material. Beebe and his team have developed a process called IFAST (immiscible filtration assisted by surface tension) that condenses the current multiple-step cleaning process into a single step.

Leveraging their expertise in microscale fluid dynamics, Beebe and his team construct a series of virtual walls composed of fluids designed in a specific, sequential arrangement within the device. In this case, magnetic beads serve as the solid material that binds to the sample and drags it through the fluids—a process that wipes away the undesirable compounds. “One swipe, one step. It's the equivalent of 10 to 30 minutes of multiple wash steps," says Beebe.

The IFAST process was originally developed to speed cancer research at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, yet has potential for widespread use, says Beebe. “We're testing to make sure it works under the types of conditions seen in the developing world including dusty, high temperature and high humidity as well as adapting it for use with a variety of samples and different types of downstream analysis technologies,” he says. “Ultimately we hope this technology will contribute to the development of high performance, low cost diagnostics to help manage disease monitoring and treatment in the developing world.”

Other UW-Madison team members include research scientists Nancy Thompson and Scott Berry, postdoctoral researcher Peter Thomas, research specialist Jenny Loeb and engineer John Guckenberger.

About Grand Challenges in Global Health
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes that solving our greatest global health issues is a long-term effort. Through Grand Challenges in Global Health, the foundation is committed to seeking out and rewarding not only established researchers in science and technology, but also young investigators, entrepreneurs and innovators to help expand the pipeline of ideas to fight diseases that claim millions of lives each year.

Mark Riechers
12/16/2011