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With its first round of funding, the 21st Century Jobs Fund Program (21CJF) seems well poised to support its goal of boosting jobs in Michigan’s emerging technologies sector. Governor Jennifer Granholm announced a total of 85 awardees to share in the $135 million of first round awards.

Among the recipients was Syed Hashsham, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan State University (MSU), who received a grant for $966,608 to develop a cost effective PCR (polymerase chain reaction) chip capable of simultaneously screening for the DNA of up to 50 pathogenic microbes in a single test. Hashsham has been with MSU since 2000 and his work focuses on molecular biology and environmental engineering issues.

Nov 5, 2006
Clean water: PCR chip points to pure supply
 
Dr. Syed Hashsham
MSU
Syed Hashsham will develop a chip capable of screening for the DNA of up to 50 pathogenic microbes in a single test
 

With its first round of funding, the 21st Century Jobs Fund Program (21CJF) seems well poised to support its goal of boosting jobs in Michigan’s emerging technologies sector. Governor Jennifer Granholm announced a total of 85 awardees to share in the $135 million of first round awards.

Among the recipients was Syed Hashsham, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan State University (MSU), who received a grant for $966,608 to develop a cost effective PCR (polymerase chain reaction) chip capable of simultaneously screening for the DNA of up to 50 pathogenic microbes in a single test. Hashsham has been with MSU since 2000 and his work focuses on molecular biology and environmental engineering issues.

According to WHO (World Health Association), unsafe water causes more than 1.6 million deaths annually, mainly in developing countries. Many more become ill. Hashsham believes some of that is preventable. Here in the U.S. alone, waterborne disease outbreaks (WBDO) made 403,000 people ill from 1991 to 2002 and caused 50 deaths, according to the Journal of Water and Health.

“Water quality is a big issue,” said Hashsham, who will develop and validate a hand-held device over the next three years. Unlike previous versions, this unit will integrate PCR and detection onto the same chip and test for both pathogen presence and abundance. It will measure quantity by tracking the time it takes to amplify target genes to a certain level. Hashsham calls it “real-time PCR” because amplification gets tracked as it occurs. The highly sensitive unit can detect down to 5 to 10 copies of the gene target.

Erdogan Gulari, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Michigan and a collaborator on the project, is responsible for chip synthesis. After MSU identifies the genomes of bacteria that are unique to the strains of interest, Gulari said, “We make a small chip approximately a half-inch on a side, that houses small reaction chambers, a heater and fragments of DNA, primers for PCR, to separately identify each pathogen.” Then, the device is exposed to target organisms and researchers check for a reaction.
  
Though current units weigh approximately 9 pounds, Hashsham said, “Ours will weigh one pound and cost a fraction of the $30,000 units available today.”

“We want cost to be a non-issue for water treatment facilities even if asked to do more,” he said. The EPA only mandates tests for E. coli and enterococci at state water plants. But, he said, “Even chlorine can’t kill everything. Some microbes are resistant.”

The technology could have a particularly strong impact for outbreak like the recent E. coli outbreak in spinach. “If more screening is in place, the chances will be much lower for an outbreak,” he said. Today’s treatment methods and monitoring techniques may not be enough to eliminate more virulent pathogens.

Though there are some specialized commercial test kits available, “Many tests require culturing bacteria and that takes days,” Gulari said. It’s costly too. With a device capable of screening for up to 50 pathogens simultaneously, they are hoping to reduce test time to 30 minutes.

Preventing false positives is a constant challenge as Hashsham moves toward product commercialization. “When you get out into the environmental there’s a lot of junk,” he said. “Dying leaves cause organic matter to be in the samples and humic acid clouds the results.” By using multiple virulence and marker genes (VMGs) and multiple probes for each gene Hashsham expects accuracy to approach 99.9 percent.

The PCR chip project merges three areas of study: microfluidics, engineering and microbiology. “Collaborations among these very different disciplines results in new knowledge and leads to cutting-edge technologies,” Hashsham said. “This is the reason why [our] project was successful in getting the funding.” He’s quick to give credit to other MSU researchers and his co-collaborators when asked about the grant awarded.

AquaBioChip LLC – the MSU spin-off in which he and James Tiedje from MSU, as well as Gulari from the University of Michigan, hold an interest – plan to commercialize the PCR chip. Gulari hopes the Ann Arbor, Michigan, water system will help in validation. Hashsham is also pursuing additional partners in the water treatment community and sees plenty of applications for the device: water systems, beaches, buildings and food production and distribution, to name a few.
Madeleine Miehls is a freelance contributor to Michigan Small Tech

Sponsored by MEDC and Michigan Small Tech Association



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