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.

BioSensors at RAIN

Biosensors have become a popular subject in both wearable devices and military technology. This technology can identify threats in our environment or disease in our bodies. Much of the research we are focusing on at RAIN is biologically inspired means to detect threats that can alert individuals and soldiers before they are endangered.

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Recently I was invited to a “biologic hackathon” in Tampa hosted by MD5 and SOFWERX that focused on designing and rapid ideation of a Human Response Biosensor for soldiers. My team spent 48 hours designing a prototype monitor to give real-time feedback for a military response team that will help save lives in the field. This type of research is being done in many areas of the military and here at our incubator at RAIN.

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This includes the recent 2017 iGEM project to detect Arsenic by a DNA based plasmid.  iGEM uses Synthetic Biology to solve many global problems including pollution, contamination, disease and many other problems that nations share across the globe. We are passionate about using Synthetic Biology to help solve these problems at RAIN. Join as at our next SuperHeroes of Science lecture or Science Breakfast to learn more.




Our iGEM Success in Boston

The 2017 Cadets2Vets iGEM team entered Boston with few expectations and a slidedeck full of hard work. We left 5 days later with a Bronze Award, a wide network of international contacts, and a fresh look towards goals for our 2018 season. Our team of UW Tacoma, West Point, Charles Wright Academy and Bellarmine students were inspired by the achievements of the other domestic and international teams at the event.

In the age of Start-Ups and Confidentiality agreements, iGEM is based on assembling reproducible research that is shared through collaborations of InterLab studies, then registered into the iGEM directory for any future team to access. This prevents inefficiencies in reproducing projects that have already been completed, to help solve problems through synthetic biology. For example, the Grand Prize was awarded to a Dutch team who developed a kit for dairy farmers to perform genetic testing on the bacteria of their cows' milk. This prevented farmers from dosing the herd with antibiotics that were drug-resistant to the animals. The kit was implemented on the farms in Delft, and the scientific techniques made available to all in the registry.

At RAIN, we are an incubator that fills the void between educational institutions and the early product development of start-ups. We endeavor to educate and inspire the future workforce of Tacoma throughout our labs. Our vision is a legacy of RAIN Alumni that develop projects in our labs that spin-off into future companies that grow our community. We saw this example at the Broad Institute on the MIT campus in Boston and recognize our students can do the same with support. 

Cadets2Vets at their Poster Session with Judges explaining their scientific techniques in Boston 11/2017.

Cadets2Vets at their Poster Session with Judges explaining their scientific techniques in Boston 11/2017.