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Irish Researcher Collaborates with UW Scientists

man bending over a lab counter holding lab instruments and reading papers on counter

Gerard Wall, a microbiologist and member of the Centre for Research in Medical Devices at the National University of Ireland Galway, uses a quartz crystal microbalance to measure protein mass in a University of Wyoming chemical engineering laboratory. (UW Photo)

November 12, 2015 — A genetic engineer from a university in Ireland says his collaboration with researchers at the University of Wyoming could lay the groundwork to develop hand-held detection devices for use in environmental monitoring and pathogen detection.

Gerard Wall, a microbiologist and member of the Centre for Research in Medical Devices at the National University of Ireland Galway, received a Fulbright Scholarship to develop such a device while on sabbatical this semester to work with Patrick Johnson, an associate professor in the UW College of Engineering and Applied Science.

The two met at a conference in Spain three years ago, and recognized their research efforts had a lot in common. Johnson works with a technology known as Surface Enhanced Raman Scattering, or SERS, while Wall’s complementary expertise lies in engineering antibodies for detection and drug delivery applications. Wall says UW and the broader Laramie area offer a concentration of SERS expertise that is unmatched.

The technology currently is applied using chemical analysis of materials, such as scanning at airports to identify what materials may be inside of glass vials. Wall wants to expand SERS for use in biological applications that could employ antibodies for purposes such as identifying viruses, water toxins or pathogens in food samples.

He says the goal is to develop a small hand-held device that allows users to take a sample, put it in a glass vial and insert into the instrument for rapid identification. For example, agriculturists could identify toxins in water on site, rather than waiting for analysis in laboratories. Toxins in shellfish could be identified immediately, so the products could be withdrawn before marketed for human consumption.

“It is clearly applicable in something like a bioterrorism context, where you could very rapidly identify a bioterrorism-type agent and then rapidly take precautions,” Wall says. “In biomedical screening, we are not talking about the speed in which you get a result. We are talking about sensitivity, because this has the potential to be an extremely sensitive test, much more so than current biomedical tests.”

For example, he says tumor markers could be identified at a much earlier stage, so treatment could be initiated sooner, allowing for a much better prognosis.

While at UW, Wall is carrying out laboratory work to generate pilot data that will support grant applications to sources such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the European Union to establish a larger, longer-term collaboration with Professor Johnson and UW. 

Wall points out that a number of startup technologies have spun out of UW in this field. For example, Keith Carron, a recently retired chemistry professor, developed a successful company that produces hand-held models that can detect targets as diverse as illegal drugs, explosives and pharmaceuticals.

“The University of Wyoming offers a critical mass in this area that you just don’t find in many places,” Wall says. “It’s an excellent place to do this type of research.”

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