Colorado State University Engineering Researcher Using Biology to Build Better Method of Detecting Tuberculosis

A Colorado State University scientist is engineering a molecular assembly that does the work of more complex medical devices to quickly and cheaply detect tuberculosis in the developing world.

Nick Fisk, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, received a $100,000 grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for research “to explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve global health.” Fisk is modifying a bacterial virus particle to interact with disease molecules and identify active tuberculosis (TB) infections in the absence of expensive equipment or medical facilities.

“A day in the hospital in the U.S., where you are hooked up to all these machines, costs thousands and thousands of dollars. For most of the world, people make one-tenth of that in a year,” Fisk said. “The idea behind the program is to look for new ways of diagnosing and treating these diseases that are inexpensive and work under conditions where you don’t have the medical facilities and even infrastructure like electricity, refrigeration and clean water that we take for granted in America.”

Fisk is developing a biological particle with a technological use – it would literally take the place of a machine or a sensor. “The virus particles we’re creating are looking for a protein that TB excretes when it’s actively growing,” he said. “We want it to detect that there’s TB present. We’re reproducing what your immune system does when it’s exposed to this protein.”

The research requires numerous rounds of testing billions of protein variants, looking for the ones that will react with the TB protein and building on the successes to create a robust system that is specific and sensitive, Fisk said.

Fisk received one of 78 grants earlier this year as part of the fourth round of funding from Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative of the Gates Foundation to help lower the barriers for testing innovative ideas in global health. The grants were awarded to investigators from 18 countries and six continents.

Colorado State University is known internationally for its tuberculosis research, especially for developing and testing potential drugs and preventative treatments against the disease, including conducting drug testing for the National Institutes of Health. The tuberculosis research program is centered in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, part of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Research also occurs in the College of Engineering and in the School of Biomedical Engineering, which is a multi-disciplinary program.