Technology Catching Up With Sci-Fi

Georgetown invention offers speedy genetic detection of bacterial and viral pathogens

By Monica Javidnia


Countless science fiction movies and crime dramas share one thing in common: the presence of technology guaranteed to frustrate anyone with a background in the life sciences. A laboratory technician sequences a genome in a matter of seconds while tablets quickly display diagnostics on humans, robots, and everything in between. Admittedly, I am guilty of shouting in the theater, “It doesn’t work that way!” much to the annoyance of my fellow moviegoers. But research led by investigators at Georgetown University Medical Center is turning fantasy into reality.

“We have developed a technique that can rapidly detect specific genomic DNA,” explains Mark Danielsen, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular & Cellular Biology. The invention, known as Fluorescence Activated Sensing Technology (FAST), could have major implications for disease diagnosis in remote locations, surveillance of water supplies and agriculture, environmental monitoring—the possibilities are endless.

The process is simple, quick, specific, and does not involve the use of the slower PCR method (polymerase chain reaction). From the Greek poly “many” and meros “part,” PCR is a widely used technique in biological research developed in the 1980s through which sequences of DNA are identified and replicated multiple times. This process can be costly and time-consuming, requiring numerous chemicals and specific equipment, and may result in false positives or negatives. The new FAST method, protected by two issued patents and a third awaiting issuance, is a vast improvement from the status quo. Along with Danielsen, other inventors are emeritus faculty Eugene Davidson, PhD and Kenneth L. Dretchen, PhD.

The work was developed in the early 2000s for a multimillion-dollar project sponsored by the Department of Defense to design an instrument that could detect biological threats. Research and development from Danielsen and colleagues resulted in detection probes for Bacillus anthracis and Yersinia pestis, more commonly known as anthrax and the plague, in addition to a detection device for use with the anthrax probe. The probes are customizable and can detect specific targets in blood, urine, the environment, and other sources, making the technology highly versatile.

The success of this technology highlights the importance of interdepartmental collaboration—namely between the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular & Cellular Biology —as well as institutional support. In addition to helping with patents and material transfer agreements, Georgetown’s Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) works to ensure that Georgetown inventions are used for the greater good, and helps found and develop local businesses. The OTC played a pivotal role in the patenting of the FAST technique and its progression by helping to secure additional research funding. An outside consultant engaged by the OTC described the promising technology as a “diamond in the rough,” notes Claudia Steward, PhD, vice president for technology and commercialization at Georgetown.

The inventors continue to explore applications for the versatile FAST method. They used it to develop a new chlamydia probe, for example, allowing for rapid, low-cost diagnosis and ensuring people are getting the appropriate treatment. This is particularly important as chlamydia is often asymptomatic, and if symptoms are present, they may be similar to those of other diseases. Most recently, the technique has been improved for use as an array technology, with the potential to screen hundreds of organisms at the same time within a single sample.

So, the next time we are sitting in a theater, hearing the buzzes and whirrs accompany flashing lights from a seemingly fantastical diagnostic device, instead of groaning in disbelief, perhaps we can smile knowing the technology is coming to fruition.

Monica Javidnia is an amateur homesteader in Upstate New York, and a postdoctoral fellow in regulatory science and experimental therapeutics in the department of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University, and the University of Rochester’s Center for Health and Technology.