1.1 Water quality testing and medical diagnostics – Annual Report 2017

With nearly all cancer deaths caused by metastasis – cells breaking away from the primary cancer and spreading through blood and lymph nodes to other parts of the body – hunting for metastatic cells is a priority in cancer diagnosis.

Finding metastatic cancer cells in blood is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack – the cells are tiny and within a large volume of blood, full of many other cells and substances.

Doctors need clean, enriched cell samples and highly specific targeting technology to diagnose quickly and accurately. Electrospun fibre mats, developed by MacDiarmid Principal Investigtors and University of Auckland Professors Jadranka Travas-Sejdic and David Williams, along with Associate Professor David Barker, will provide just that. The researchers have recently developed surface- grafted mats with negatively charged ‘brushes’ and capture probes made of DNA strands that recognise specific genes. They will use such platform technology and develop it to selectively capture intact rare cells from complex liquids and release them into an analysis medium –concentrating disease markers for medical testing and diagnosis.

Professor Travas-Sejdic explains. “Our gene detection technology is capable of targeting a whole range of things just through changing the DNA probe, from cancer cells in blood, to bacteria and other pathogens in water and food, viruses and much more. The technology has applications in medical diagnosis, forensic science, and food and water quality testing.

“We have shown that we can use these novel polymers, that bear specific gene probes, as a thin coat on our highly porous conducting electrospun fibre mats. We can make highly sensitive and selective gene sensors.”

Professor Travas-Sejdic’s team this year received a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Endeavour Smart Ideas grant, worth $900,000 over three years. “We’re looking to functionalise the fibres – to build a library of functional materials to capture biomolecules. This is platform technology – it can go in any direction,” says Professor Travas- Sejdic.

One direction they’re already heading is commercialisation, with spinout company SpotCheck Technologies registered in early 2017. SpotCheck plans to commercialise this biosensing platform technology, and the team has secured seed funding from Auckland UniServices (Return on Science) and from University of Auckland Inventors Fund. It has already attracted interest from investment groups.

The new company, which has employed three former MacDiarmid PhD students, is working to show that the technology is large-scale manufacturable, similar to the production of highly commercially successful glucose sensors. These gene sensors will be cheap and portable. For example, they could be used in GP offices for on-site bacterial tests or by local authorities to test bacterial pollutions of water.

Going forward, the group is collaborating with MacDiarmid Principal Investigator and Victoria University of Wellington Professor Thomas Nann and Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Renee Goreham to extend the application of electro-spun fibres (such as for capturing exosomes), and has recruited a MacDiarmid- funded PhD student to assist, starting in early 2018.