UTEP Researchers Awarded NIH Grant to Silence Whooping Cough

Researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso will receive $405,305 over two years from The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to continue with the development of a low-cost, paper-based biochip to detect pertussis, also known as whooping cough, in medically underserved or low-resource settings. The NIAID is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

XiuJun (James) Li, Ph.D., assistant professor in UTEP’s Department of Chemistry, in collaboration with Delfina C. Domínguez, Ph.D., a professor of clinical laboratory sciences in the College of Health Sciences, will produce a paper-based three-dimensional microfluidic point-of-care device that integrates DNA amplification, a highly sensitive technique, to rapidly diagnose whooping cough.

The procedure involves placing a sample from a nasal swab into a device similar to a pregnancy test strip that will change color to indicate the presence of the bacteria.

The handheld device can be used in schools, doctors’ offices and other areas that have limited access to medical supplies, equipment and medications.

“Current diagnostic methods are either time-consuming or require expensive equipment,” said Li, who also is developing microfluidic biochips for other infectious disease diagnosis such as meningitis. “Those factors limit their application in rapid diagnosis of this infectious disease at a patient’s bedside or in the field. I am very pleased to collaborate with Dr. Domínguez and other collaborators to develop and validate a low-cost point-of-care (POC) biochip using the innovative microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technique to fill this gap, especially in low-resource settings. I expect the biochip can be used in various public venues for simple, high-sensitivity and high-specificity diagnosis of B. pertussis within a few years.”

Domínguez will evaluate the effectiveness of the device that Li designed using clinical samples from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which will be provided by Jennifer Dien Bard, Ph.D., medical director of the hospital’s microbiology laboratory.

“This novel POC biochip will revolutionize clinical diagnosis and improve patient outcomes,” said Domínguez, a microbiology expert. “Pertussis is the only vaccine-preventable disease that is associated with increasing deaths in the United States. The incidence of pertussis in adults and adolescents has risen dramatically during the last few years.”

Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria. The disease can be difficult to diagnose because it mimics the symptoms of the common cold, such as sneezing, fever and a mild cough. After two weeks, symptoms worsen, resulting in a hacking cough that sounds like a “whoop” when a person gasps for air.

While a vaccine does exist, pertussis remains endemic in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28,660 cases of pertussis were reported in 2014. In Texas, 2,374 cases were reported last year.

The CDC estimates that there are 16 million pertussis cases worldwide.

Also known as lab-on-a-chip, microfluidic systems have made point-of-care testing more affordable and accessible, especially in poor-resource settings and in developing nations.

The technology allows the analysis of a sample to take place on-site rather than in a laboratory.

Li estimates the new point-of-care device will cost only a few cents to produce. It also will eliminate the need for specialized equipment, such as a centrifuge, and costly real-time PCR machines. Test results from the new device will be available in less than an hour.

At the moment, testing for pertussis can only be done in a clinical setting, which involves taking a sample of secretions from the back of the throat of a patient through the nose, using a small, flexible swab.

In addition to pertussis, Domínguez and Li believe the device has the potential to identify other infectious diseases.

In 2013, Domínguez and Li received a grant from the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science to initiate the construction of the device and to obtain clinical samples.