Biosensors will detect tropical diseases
LiU molecular physicist sets up new laboratory in Singapore
Singapore has a high tempo and the economic conditions for research are generous. Within seven months, Bo Liedberg managed to set up a laboratory for the manufacturing and characterisation of new sensor materials that can detect contagia and toxins.
Bo Liedberg is a professor in molecular physics at Linköping University and, since the autumn of 2009, has been spending a third of his time at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with the task of launching the Center for Biomimetic Sensor Science (CBSS). The management also includes professors Wolfgang Knoll from the Austrian Institute of Technology and Freddy Boey from the School of Materials Science and Engineering, NTU.
The main force behind the project is Bertil Andersson, a former rector at Linköping University. For three years now, he has been the provost responsible for research and education at NTU.
Biomimetics is the science of imitating nature’s solutions to various problems – one of the cornerstones of the Liedberg group’s research back at home. One example of biomimetics is studying the Arctic flounder’s antifreeze mechanism; another is trying to create surfaces that repel barnacle larvae from ships’ hulls.
A medical application is to detect disease markers by taking advantage of the ability that biomolecules have to hook on to each other. The main focus at the Singapore-based lab is to develop simple field sensors for detecting tropical infectious diseases, such as dengue fever and malaria, and poisonous substances in connection with accidents and acts of terror or war. An important collaborator is DSO National Laboratories, which has good opportunities to field test and evaluate the sensors.
“These things have to be foolproof and robust in order to work”, says Bo Liedberg. “In the places we are talking about there are no refrigerators and no advanced laboratory resources.”
Bo Liedberg and Bertil Andersson, LiU professors
That being the case, the sensors are based on synthetic molecules that can tolerate extreme environments. Biosensors are normally made from natural antibodies, but these do not tolerate high temperatures; many attempts have thus failed. The specially-tailored molecules, often of the peptide family, are manufactured with the help of recipes from a former professor at Linköping University, Lars Baltzer.
Malaria is caused by single-cell parasites of the genus Plasmodium; dengue fever by viruses, but both are spread by mosquito bites. The pathogens are encased in proteins that can be captured and detected by the right sort of peptide. A couple of drops of blood on a test card could be all that is needed for an early diagnosis and to stem the parasites’ rampage through the body.
The second focus at the lab is basic research about new concepts for optical and electrical sensors, using materials such as gold, carbon nanotubes and graphene. The ultimate goal is to develop new ways of detecting toxins and other pollutants in water, foodstuffs etc.
Bertil Andersson calls the new laboratory a unique effort, a world-class network for the next-generation biosensors.
“Singapore is investing a great deal in strategic research that can lead to applications. Dengue fever is a serious disease that occurs in the country, and malaria is common in the neighbouring lands”, he says.
The city-state of Singapore is in a special position as a rich and research-intensive land surrounded by relatively poor, developing countries. Very large investments mean that they are now in the middle of a “quantum leap”.
“It is fantastic to be able to work in a system where there are plenty of resources. The new funds have made things very dynamic. This has, for example, made it possible for us at NTU to set up a new medical faculty in cooperation with the Imperial College in London”, says Bertil Andersson, who is scheduled to return as a professor at Linköping University in 2012.
Singapore’s 694 square kilometres hold 4.5 million inhabitants and three large universities. NTU is the technical one, with 24,000 students in undergraduate education, over 8,000 postgraduates and 5,500 employees. Half of the students and many employees live on campus.
There are ten postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers working at the biosensor laboratory today. Five researchers at NTU are engaged as tutors. If all goes according to plan, staffing will be doubled within a year.
The initiative, funded by NTU together with partners Linköping University and AIT, also includes an exchange programme for all academic levels, from undergraduate students to professors. There are also well-advanced plans for cooperation between NTU and Linköping University within electronics, materials science and interactive media.
Last updated: 2012-01-20