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DNA detectives

DNA detectives

Doctoral student Pradeep Bhadrachalam works in the lab of Seong Jin Koh, who is fine-tuning a system that can detect tiny amounts of harmful DNA.

In a way, Seong Jin Koh’s research is about doing more with less. “More” is quick and early detection of harmful things. “Less” is detecting them on a DNA level with nanoscale technology.

Dr. Koh, an associate professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department, and his research team are fine-tuning minuscule systems that can detect DNA of such things as E. coli bacteria and anthrax. Their detection system also can identify abnormal gene expressions, which can be used to diagnose various types of cancers. Tiny sensors on silicon chips are programmed to detect specific DNA on a sample of a food product, blood, water, or even air.

DNA detection on such a small scale is a big deal.

Seong Jin Koh

Seong Jin Koh, materials science and engineering associate professor

“The established ways need millions of DNA molecules to detect them,” Koh says. “We would need 10 or 100 molecules. We want to detect efficiently with a single chip without a large laboratory process.”

The benefits are huge, both for the public and UT Arlington.

“This is high-risk, big-return type research,” Koh says. “We know our concept is working. If it can be implemented, there are many immediate benefits for many companies and our society.”

The Department of Homeland Security and the military could reveal biological weapons, such as anthrax, before they spread. Doctors could detect and treat cancer earlier, saving lives and lowering health care costs. Investigators could trace perpetrators to a crime scene with the smallest of blood samples.

In the food industry, early detection of E. coli, salmonella, or other harmful pathogens would allow a company to stop production, find the contamination source, and fix the problem immediately. That could mean no product recalls, no customers who become ill or even die, and no costly lawsuits.

Koh started the research with a two-year grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, followed by a National Science Foundation grant. Research on potential commercial applications is needed, too, he adds. For example, how could the detector be used in a physician’s office during a routine exam or blood test?

“In a physical, we don’t check for cancer on the molecule level,” Koh says. “Instead of checking for just one cancer, we could check for different cancers or diseases at one time. This could help with the cost of health care. And if we can detect cancer earlier, people can survive.”