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Freshman Researchers Receive Grand Challenges Explorations Grant for Groundbreaking Mosquito Diagnostic Plan

Undergraduate researchers will create diagnostics to test mosquitos for blood-borne pathogens such as malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya virus.

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The DIY Diagnostics research stream of the Freshman Research Initiative enables first-year students to work on a variety of projects, including creating apps to help potential skin cancer patients track suspicious moles, conducting saliva tests to determine bacterial diversity and assessing water quality to gauge the public health impacts of any contamination in Waller Creek.

Now, thanks to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the DIY Diagnosticians are taking one of their projects even further.

Chosen from 1,800 applications from around the world to be a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, a project called “Detecting Pathogens in Mosquitos with Pregnancy Test Strips” will be the focus of undergraduate researchers, led by Professor Andy Ellington and faculty research educator Tim Riedel. The initial prize is $100,000, and researchers whose ideas pan out successfully have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.

Undergraduate researchers in the DIY research stream, together with the Ellington Lab, will attempt to create a brand new device that applies molecular technology to hack into the workings of a common pregnancy test. With the help of a processing tool from an Austin-based company, Paratus Diagnostics, instead of detecting pregnancy in women, the test would be able to tell whether mosquitos carry blood-borne pathogens like malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya virus.

“Diseases like malaria disproportionately affect millions of people in developing economies — not because we don’t know how to treat them, but because we don’t know how to quickly and effectively find them,” said Ellington, a professor of molecular biosciences.

Controlling these diseases would be easier if communities knew whether the mosquitos trapped in a given area carry infection. The new device would quickly, immediately and cheaply discover if a dead mosquito carries malaria or another disease. If a pathogen is detected, the technology produces a strong chemical signal in response to the pathogen’s DNA. This signal is then converted into a hormone that leads to a positive test result, clearly reporting either the presence or absence of malaria or another infection the same way that pregnancy is clearly reported by the tests.

“In an age where cell phones and information technology connect us all, there needs to be a way that we can bring diagnostics directly to users,” Ellington said. “The undergraduate researchers in this Gates-funded project will help to develop molecular assays that can directly interface with portable devices, allowing their use where the need is greatest.

When developing their proposal, the UT Austin team couldn’t use any names or descriptive details because of the Gates Foundation’s blind proposal process. It’s only by coincidence that the DIY Diagnostics research stream had a preexisting affiliation with Bill Gates: DIY Diagnostics was established in 2013 as a gift of sorts to the global health champion from his friend, UT Austin alumnus Robert O’Rear, M.A. ’66 (mathematics). O’Rear, who started working at Microsoft in 1977 as the company’s seventh employee, made the contribution to create the stream in recognition of Gates’ generosity in the building of the Gates-Dell Complex, which houses UT Austin’s Department of Computer Science.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that Launched in 2008 and has supported over 1,100 projects in more than 60 countries. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization.

The Freshman Research Initiative is a program in the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin that offers first-year students the opportunity to initiate and engage in authentic research experiences with faculty in the college. It is the largest program of its kind in the country and has been found to lead to higher GPAs, greater likelihood of post-college education, and a doubling of students’ chances of graduating with a STEM degree.

This story was updated July 1. The official press release can be found here.