Advances in technology have made detection of pathogens through DNA testing more effective and accessible in the fight to control and eradicate some of the most devastating human and animal diseases. Yet, despite these advances, these tests still have significant limitations.
This is a challenge that RSC researcher, Apostolos (Lee) Alissandratos, a recent recipient of the CSIRO Future Science Fellowship in Synthetic Biology, is working to address.
“Tests based on pathogen DNA amplification and detection are extremely effective,” Lee explains, “but only within well-equipped laboratories that are not available in low-resource and rural settings where such tests are most urgently needed.
“I am working to address this challenge, harnessing the unbridled potential of synthetic biology to produce a new platform for user-friendly diagnostic tests that may be carried out at point-of-care, in low resource settings and at just a fraction of the cost of current methods.”
Lee is a chemical engineer by training, completing his first degree in his home town of Athens. He didn’t enter the field of chemistry until he moved to his other ancestral homeland – Scotland -- where he completed his PhD. Lee’s PhD took him into new directions, ones that a standard researcher would unlikely experience.
“After picking up my PhD I quickly moved back to Greece and enlisted in the Greek military to carry out mandatory national service,” he explains. “After some initial basic training and a short stint on the Greek border, I was then stationed at the Army Chemical Laboratories where standardised tests are carried out on materials and equipment procured by the Army. This was a frustrating yet interesting time, as it constituted an unwelcome break from research but I got first-hand experience in the operation of fully standardised Analytical Laboratories.
“Following my service to Greece, I was offered a position by Chris Easton at the RSC. Moving half-way round the world was a tough decision to make, but the prospect of working within the world-class research environment at the RSC -- and in a land where the weather resembles more Greece and less Scotland -- was too good an opportunity to miss.
In Australia, Lee has worked on a range of cutting-edge projects, all in the area of synthetic biology – or SynBio.
“Synthetic biology is a highly interdisciplinary field, where Biologists must engage with Chemists, Engineers, Mathematicians and Social Scientists,” Lee explains. “We are producing bespoke biological components and using these to engineer complex biological devices with predictable functions for application to almost any useful task, from the production of green fuels and chemicals to environmental decontamination to targeted therapies and point-of-care devices. All this may have the air of science fiction but it is very much becoming a reality - and the Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform is at the forefront of this.”
Now, Lee is using his experiences of standardised testing in the Greek Army to use SynBio techniques to develop portable, accessible and affordable technologies to detect diseases.
“We are looking to harness the great potential of SynBio for the production of simple yet accurate and robust diagnostic tests for the detection of disease,” he explains.
“More specifically, we will prepare biological devices that carry out DNA amplification upon the presence of small amounts of pathogen DNA, and that also include a biosensing element for easy detection of the amplified product. The biosensor will be compatible with existing portable technologies and provide an accurate unambiguous reading.
“The basis of this is a cascade of enzymatic reactions and is therefore in essence Chemistry. Though this principle has been applied to analytical tests these are not effectively employable in resource-limited settings such as those found in remote Australian communities and the developing world. The problem with existing methods is that all components -- some of which are labile -- must be produced separately, stored cold and then put to use as part of complex protocols carried out by skilled personnel. This is expensive and requires considerable expertise for application and a well-equipped centralised lab.
“We will overcome these requirements in three ways. First, we will engineer our devices to generate labile starting materials in situ, allowing production of robust tests with long shelf lives. Second, we’ll carry out the entire process in one-pot, greatly simplifying use. Finally, we’ll incorporate a biosensor that is compatible with low-cost portable technologies for detection at point-of-care.”
“As proof-of-concept, we aim to produce tests for TB, affecting millions world-wide, and avian-Newcastle virus, a great risk to the Australian farming sector and biodiversity. However once established our platform will be easily applicable to most any pathogen.”
For Lee, the research setting at CSIRO and ANU have been a perfect place to explore these topics. He says that winning a CSIRO Future Science Fellowship has been a great honour that will allow him to continue this work into the future.
“The world-class environment within the scientific hub formed by CSIRO Black Mountain and ANU is both nurturing and stimulating for young researchers. I have been privileged in experiencing this first-hand, so there was no doubt in my mind that being able to carry out my project at the RSC under the CSIRO SynBio Future Science Platform banner would provide me with great opportunity to develop my ideas into real-world solutions.