Carnegie Mellon University
June 25, 2020

Chemistry’s Danith Ly Receives Grant to Develop Global Pathogen Surveillance System

Grant from the DSF Charitable Foundation Will Fund the Early Stages of the System’s Development

By Jocelyn Duffy

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Carnegie Mellon Professor of Chemistry Danith Ly has received a $500,000 grant from the DSF Charitable Foundation and the Mellon College of Science to take the early steps in developing a Global Pathogen Surveillance System (GPS2) that will integrate molecular circuits with existing telecommunications technology to identify potential hotspots for the emergence of infectious diseases.

Most pandemics, including the bubonic plague, Spanish flu and COVID-19, are caused by pathogens, specifically viruses or bacteria. The same holds true for a number of deadly diseases, including smallpox, influenza, malaria and cholera. When these diseases and their associated pandemics are stopped by the development of effective treatments and vaccines, the pathogens don’t simply vanish. Rather they jump from humans to livestock and cohabitated organisms, where they replicate and mutate until the conditions are right for them to return. With each round, infections become more widespread and evasive to modern deterrents due to the bacteria and viruses’ newly acquired genetic immunity. 

“We want to build something like the Tsunami Warning System for pathogens,” said Ly, who is the director of Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Biomolecular Design and Discovery. “If we can detect an uptick in the presence of a pathogen in a localized environment, we can warn those who are likely to be infected. This will afford them time to take potentially life-saving precautions that will prevent outbreaks and pandemics from starting.”  

Ly has been developing a molecular circuit that scientists, field workers or even the general population could easily and inexpensively use to test water, soil or insects for deadly pathogens. For example, a person could take a few drops of water or a dead mosquito, place it in a vial and add a few drops of a solution that contains the molecular circuit. The circuits can detect genetic sequences unique to a given pathogen and convert and amplify the sequence so they emit a reporter signal that is revealed using UV light. The person could then take a picture of the sample using a smart phone and send it to a command center, where the information will be processed and disseminated with the aid of artificial intelligence. If the command center receives an influx of signals indicating a given pathogen in one area, it could then alert local residents and officials of the potential for an outbreak.

Ly is also developing the molecular circuit to be able to detect the presence of pathogens in saliva or blood samples from humans, making it a possible tool for diagnosing and tracking the path of a disease during a pandemic.

Central to the development and implementation of GPS2 are the unique characteristics of the integrated circuit that Ly developed, called In-situ Nucleic Acid Detection and Signal Amplifications (or INDSA), which allow for testing without sample preparation, enzyme-based target or signal amplification, or complicated instrumentation. 

“In the case of an emergent epidemic like the early stages of COVID-19, the molecular circuits could also be used for rapid, on-site mass-population screenings. Having the ability to do this could prevent an epidemic from becoming a pandemic,” Ly said.

With the funding from DSF and MCS, Ly plans to continue to develop and refine the integrated INDSA detection prototype. He also will work with computer scientists and system engineers to develop the infrastructure for acquiring and transmitting data from the GPS2.