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New DNA sensing technique could find biological contaminants, detect cancer earlier

News Release — 8 December 2009

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media contact: Herb Booth, (817) 272-7075, hbooth@uta.edu

ARLINGTON - Imagine that a soldier returning from the battlefield is unknowingly carrying a contaminant. But sensors embedded on a tiny electronic chip detect the contaminant, alerting personnel to treat the soldier, potentially saving his life and avoiding harm to fellow troops.

Seong Jin Koh, associate professor in UT Arlington's Materials and Science Engineering Department, is leading the team at work on tiny sensors that can detect the smallest DNA molecules of harmful biological species.

Koh's work is funded through a $319,581 National Science Foundation grant.

"If some foreign agent has been put on a soldier, this sensor could detect it," Koh said. "It could even be used in the battlefield to see what's in that environment. It could be used to test food supplies in the field."

The power behind the new DNA sensing technique, Koh said, is that the process is sensitive enough to detect even a few DNA molecules in a sample.

"Importantly, the sensor output is a simple electrical signal and the sensors reside on a small silicon chip, allowing their cost-effective fabrication and ease of use," Koh said. "This technology could lead to many applications that can impact our lives."

Most existing DNA detection techniques are time-consuming, expensive and not sensitive enough to indicate extremely low concentrations of DNA molecules, he said. Koh's electrical detection system is cost-effective and much quicker to use, he added.

The system also could be used to detect mutations of cancer-causing genes that would signal the early stages of various types of cancer. Doctors, Koh said, could use such information to recommend the best possible treatment for their patients. He said doctors then could start treatment earlier than other forms of detection would allow.

The sensors also could aid in developing medicines and investigating crime scenes, where often only the smallest traces of evidence are left behind, Koh said. In theory, the technique may eventually help doctors target specific medicines for patients prone to a particular type of cancer.

UT Arlington already has secured intellectual property licenses and one U.S. patent for Koh's work, while one U.S. patent is pending.

Koh's work is representative of the kind of high-tech research under way at The University of Texas at Arlington, an institution of 28,000 students on its way to becoming a nationally ranked, Tier One institution.

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