NSERC students create diagnostic tools

The work of Aryn Ketsa (L) and Kyle Moxham (R) in Robert Burrell's engineering lab could help revolutionize diagnostics.

ARYN KETSA: I am in fourth year materials engineering and this is the first NSERC undergraduate work I’ve done. I work with Dr. Robert Burrell—I am working on thin films and thin metals, anodizing them and then looking at the interference colours that they produce. You can see the concept of interference colours at work when you see a rainbow in the oil on a puddle. Basically, the light comes in, and the index of refraction between the layers is different. So the light will bounce off at different wavelengths and at different positions due to those layers.

Interference colors will be visible when the wavelengths match up and are constructively interfering with each other. When they don’t match they’ll be destructive, and you won’t see that particular colour.

In the project I am working on, interference colours tell us about the thickness of the metals and the proteins we have put on the surface. The proteins will create different interference colours. The end goal is to create some kind of detection device that we can use in the human system. It’s a diagnostic tool that will eventually have a lot of real-world applications.

I wanted to try research this summer to see if it was for me. I am really enjoying the research and lab experience. My big decision I have to make over the coming year is if I am going to pursue graduate studies. In addition to research, the lab has given me real engineering experience: I have been able to use the tools I learned about in class. I never thought I’d actually use these tools in the workplace!

Even just experiencing more of an employee-employer relationship has been useful for me. I’ve only had one other actual job. The insight I have gained on the research side of the engineering industry has been eye-opening because that side of the industry isn’t as well-known. It’s been good working with people who share the same interests I have, and having the chance to talk about engineering news is great.

Dr. Burrell will come in often and ask us questions, and quiz us. We’ll ask him a question, but rather than answer it, he’ll start asking us things to get us to the answer. It’s really helpful. Working in the lab is one of the greatest things I’ve done—I never dread going to work.   

KYLE MOXHAM: I am in my third year of biological sciences and this is my second time receiving an NSERC undergraduate grant. My supervisor is Dr. Burrell, too, and I’m working on the same project I did last year. It’s a thin-film diagnostic device. Basically it’s a series of sputter-deposited metal layers that allow us to create nano-structured films. We use the properties of the device to generate interference colours, and based on that, you can detect specific antigen-antibody interactions. This is where the biology comes in.

One example that we could use is papillary thyroid carcinoma. It’s the most common type of thyroid cancer, accounting for around 80 per cent of cases. Of that 80 per cent, 60 per cent of cases are metastasizing carcinomas, which are invasive and deadly. Researchers here at the U of A found biomarkers that are specific to that carcinoma called PDGFR-Alpha.

This is extremely significant because the 40 per cent of people whose papillary thyroid carcinomas are not invasive receive the same treatment as the 60 per cent whose tumours will metastasize. The current treatment is extremely invasive. It involves the removal of the thyroid and the dissection of the lymph nodes up and down your neck.

The hope is that, while a patient is on the operating table, surgeons can take a sample of the carcinoma and test it on the spot. Based on the presence of colour shift, they will be able to tell if the PDGFR-Alpha biomarker for the more invasive cancer is present. It will allow patients without the biomarker to avoid unnecessarily invasive surgical treatment. It’s a revolutionary way of looking at diagnostics.  

We hope that this device will help bring down health care costs as well as having point-of-care diagnoses available for patient use, which reflects a greater movement in health care.

When I heard that Dr. Burrell had an opening in his lab, I really wanted to join. I think it will be helpful for me, because I want to become a physician. Ideally, I’d like to continue research too. For two years at the lab they’ve been trying to convince me to switch to engineering! I’d argue that for projects like this one, the line between engineering and biology is becoming so blurred that different disciplines can work together effectively.

The technology is still in development right now, but there’s no definite timeline for when it will be commercialized. Not only can you use it for papillary thyroid cancer, but you can theoretically apply it to any antigen-antibody interaction. For example, you could use it with a blood sample to see, because of the colour change, if a person needed a booster for their measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. There are a lot of other possibilities with this technology and I’m very optimistic about its future.