Fighting antibiotic resistance with smartphones

​Antibiotic resistance is spreading rapidly throughout the globe. Using smartphones to diagnose resistance would make it possible to fight the problem more effectively. Chalmers just received a Grand Challenges Explorations grant to explore this further.
​On November 15, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the winners of Round 17 of Grand Challenges Exploration, which gives grants for groundbreaking research in global health and development. One of the winners is Chalmers. Associate Professor Fredrik Westerlund from the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering will lead the project.

– We have for several years been developing techniques to study the DNA molecules – so called plasmids – that are a main cause for the rapid spread of resistance to antibiotics. Our methods are expensive but give us a lot of useful information. Now we want to take this a step further by developing cheaper techniques, he says.

In 2014, the American Professor Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA introduced a lightweight and cost-effective fluorescence microscope installed on a smartphone. The camera on the smartphone could actually produce pictures of single DNA molecules, with high enough quality to measure their size. What if this technique could evolve further, to produce high-quality images that could be used for diagnostics and epidemiological tracing of antibiotic resistance?

– We applied for the grant to test if we can perform our research on plasmids using smartphones. We are now working together with Professor Ozcan, and we are also collaborating with a physician specialized in infectious diseases, and a PhD student in Ethiopia. Antibiotic resistance is a global issue, and we need a large team to work with all the different aspects, Fredrik Westerlund explains.
– The whole idea of this is to democratize science; the dream would be if people in developing countries could use this simple and cheap technique in their own environment.

With the 100 000 dollar grant from the Gates Foundation, the group has 18 month to develop the idea further and may then – if successful – receive a follow-up grant of up to one million USD.

– We want to continue, to take this further; from developing the microscopy to the software needed for analysis. In the long run, I would like to see a smartphone app for this. Just imagine the possibilities of working globally when you can store information from mobile phones in clouds, Fredrik Westerlund says, and continues:
– What does it take to set up a modern research lab in the jungle? How far can we take this method? We want to explore smart ways to make research and diagnosis more accessible.

Text: Mia Malmstedt
Photo: Karin Weijdegård

Published: Thu 24 Nov 2016.