Researcher rises to grand challenge of fighting TB

UAlberta chemistry professor Julianne Gibbs-Davis explains her proposal to develop an inexpensive, easy-to-administer tool for diagnosing tuberculosis in developing countries. (Video: Grand Challenges Canada)

(Edmonton) Although treating tuberculosis is a long and arduous task, half the battle against the sometimes lethal infection is figuring out whether someone has it. Diagnosis of active TB normally relies on X-rays, as well as microscopic examination and microbiological culture of body fluids.

Unfortunately, in developing countries where the disease is reaching epidemic proportions, this sort of in-depth exploration is simply not an option.

A cheap and easy-to-administer solution is on the horizon thanks to University of Alberta chemistry professor Julianne Gibbs-Davis, who recently won a $100,000 grant from the Canadian Rising Stars in Global Health Grand Challenges program to help push her innovation along.

Gibbs-Davis, who has been a professor at the U of A since 2008, began her research career wanting to use her nanotechnology background to dream of ways of making chemical systems that mirror the complexities of nature, like the ability to self-replicate.

She explains the original aim was to make a system in which natural DNA could trigger replication using a combination of natural and unnatural DNA building blocks. If it worked, it would be a simple way to detect a unique DNA sequence associated with a host of infectious bacteria like TB and malaria.

“Our goal is to use our DNA replication strategy to detect these diseases with a level of accuracy that typically is only found using tests located in well-equipped hospitals,” said Gibbs-Davis. “With results provided at the point of care, patients should be able to be treated correctly and more quickly, which should alleviate the patient's suffering and help minimize the spread of infection.”

In the last year, Gibbs-Davis says, her team has made bigger strides than she anticipated, setting the stage for some new benchmarks.

“Our next goal is to make the system robust, so we can send a first-generation, one-pot detection system to our collaborators in Zimbabwe and South Africa,” she said. “Our preliminary results are looking very good.”

Grand Challenges Canada is a federally funded grant program that brings focus and energy to defining and addressing global health issues. A grand challenge is a specific critical barrier that, if removed, would help solve an important health problem in the developing world, with a high likelihood of global impact through widespread implementation.

The global nature of the infection has drawn Gibbs-Davis into collaborations with researchers in Zimbabwe and South Africa, but has also drawn her closer to colleagues at home.

“Three of my colleagues are also working on global health projects funded by Grand Challenges or the Gates Foundation. We are all approaching it in different ways, which broadens my view,” she said. One of her colleagues, Ratmir Derda, organized a point-of-care diagnostics conference in Kenya this summer that was also sponsored by Grand Challenges.

“That was really eye-opening and has given me a very helpful perspective going forward on this project.”

She adds that the U of A has been a tremendous place to start her independent research lab.

“I have all the technical resources I could need in my lab and available throughout the department,” she said. “I have great graduate and undergraduate students who are excited and passionate about research.”

More UAlberta Rising Stars in Global Health

Round 1

Ratmir Derda, professor in the Department of Chemistry

Stephanie Yanow, professor in the School of Public Health

Round 2

Karim Damji, professor in the Department of Ophthalmology

Abdullah Saleh, surgical resident

Michael Serpe, professor in the Department of Chemistry

Aman Ullah, professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science