PathTracker: Utilization of technology to identify pathogens

By David Hirshberg, PhD

PathTracker is one of the projects I have been most proud of during my time at RAIN and University of Washington-Tacoma. This project started as a diagnostic to identify pathogens in race horses. It has grown into a multidisciplinary group that includes University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign / UWT that utilizes a smartphone and test kit to diagnosis multiple infectious disease. This type of pathogen detection kit can be purchased at a drugstore, analyzed on a smart phone, and reviewed online with a physician. This all started in our lab at the UWT with our students and research. This also was pivotal in developing the career path for our graduate student, Ryan Brisbin. Ryan designed the nucleic acid reagents that help to identify these diseases.  


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As with most projects, it is our research partners that mobilize the success of the results. Dr. David Nash an equine veterinarian utilized horses as an animal model for respiratory disease and explains “You can often more easily develop diagnostic tools for human use by coming in to development from the animal side of things first. Many diseases show up first in animals, kind of the canary in the coal mine.”  The findings pioneered by engineer Dr. Brian Cunningham, an engineer, were published in Analytical Chemistry in 2017 and demonstrated detection of four horses’ respiratory disease, and in Biomedical Microdevices, where the system was used to detect and quantify the presence of Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya virus in a droplet of whole blood.

            I was recently in Lexington, Kentucky presenting on this topic where the financial impact of infectious disease outbreaks in horses is significantly costly to horse owners and disrupts the business operations. Dr. Nash works closely with this group and notes that smartphone technology is the future of medicine as it “empowered front-line healthcare professionals. We can’t stop viruses and bacteria, but we can diagnose more quickly. We were able to demonstrate the clear benefit to humankind, as well as to animals, during the proposal phase of the project, and our results have proved our premise. Next, I want to go into the field, multiple sites, multiple geographic locations, and test in real-world situations.”

            At RAIN, we will continue to work to develop PathTracker in conjunction with the UI Urbana-Champaign. This will not only advance identify research in veterinarian medicine point-of-care diagnostics in human healthcare as well.