By Sean Firoz
Senior Executive, Communications & External Relations
To most people, the large Styrofoam box sitting on the lab bench looked destined for the bin. But to Aletheia Chia, it held the key to creating a portable, affordable and easy-to-make incubator to grow cell cultures. Adding a fan, heater and a touch of computer software, Aletheia turned a simple Styrofoam box into a fully functioning incubator. With the added bonus of a donated scanner, she could even check whether the cultures were ready for analysis from the comfort of her own home. The cost of this prototype? Less than $400.
Aletheia Chia explains how her prototype works to Acting Minister for Education Mr Ong Ye Kung during a recent visit
”Culturing bacteria takes up a lot of time, and it’s very boring and repetitive which makes it suitable for automation,” said Aletheia. “Based on DIY biology, I moved on to see if I could automate microbiology at a low cost.”
Aletheia is one of three LKCMedicine Year 2 students who joined Associate Professor of Human & Microbial Genetics Eric Yap to work on prototypes of lab equipment that can be easily produced and acquired by anyone. Not only are these prototypes cheaper and simpler to make, many of them also yield faster and more accurate results.
From left to right: Year 2 LKCMedicine students Aletheia Chia, Darren Wong and Brian Ho from the URECA programme
Working on a range of projects, the team has assembled a whole suite of lab equipment that allows anyone to collect and process biological samples, incubate bacteria and identify them through their DNA signatures. The students completed these projects as part of the Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus (URECA) programme, an 11-month university-wide programme that aims to foster a research culture amongst undergraduates from NTU.
As well as the three LKCMedicine students, the team of URECA students also included two Year 3 students from the School of Biological Sciences. They used hair-dryers, Lego pieces, food processors and other common household items, and combined them with open source and simple computer technology to create lab-grade equivalent equipment.
Assoc Prof Yap said, “The overall goal of the URECA Project is to democratise science so that one doesn’t need a PhD, $100,000 funding or a full-time research job to contribute meaningfully to scientific discovery and education. This might not only be a far more cost-effective way of exploring and teaching biomedical sciences, but also lead to sustainable solutions to tropical disease diagnosis at the point-of-care in low resource settings.”
To get them started and inspired with ideas, the five students underwent a rigorous series of Hands-on-Training (HOT) sessions to equip them with wide-ranging skills such as 3D printing, DNA analysis and microbial culture.
Aletheia said, “We were all quite inspired by our few months of exploration, as well as the DIY culture. So we learnt a lot of things that helped us build our models.”
Her classmate Darren Wong, too, derived a lot of satisfaction from being able to build something from scratch. He developed a handy, low-cost device which can detect DNA quickly by shining UV light on it. Using a simple smart phone camera, he developed an image analysis method that accurately measures how much light a type of bacteria absorbs in a sample. This portable device has comparable accuracy to dedicated desktop instruments and allows the user to test how susceptible or resistant bacteria are to antibiotics, or the abundance of bacteria in a food sample.
Darren Wong presenting his work on his smart phone DNA detector at the LKC BioMeDesInE Workshop
Darren said, “I was inspired by the DIY Biology movement, specifically with the smart phone, because everybody has one. If you can modify it somehow to make science more accessible to the average layman, then I think that would have more impact on society.”
Brian Ho, also from the Class of 2019, on the other hand, designed and built a capillary gel electrophoresis device that can detect even a fragment of a tuberculosis bacterial cell – making it at least 10 times more accurate than current TB tests. When testing for the different strains of bacteria that cause tuberculosis, this highly sensitive method can produce results in just an hour, compared with two weeks for current tests, dramatically shortening the time to treatment for those suffering from the disease.
Year 2 LKCMedicine student Brian Ho's capillary gel electrophoresis prototype
“Although identifying TB bacteria can already be done by professional lab equipment, it can also be inaccessible in some countries,” said Brian. “With this project, I hope to bridge that gap and provide a more accessible type of equipment.”
Brian presents his prototype at the LKC BioMeDesInE Workshop
Creating affordable devices to conduct research was not the only end goal for the students. With simple materials that cost less than $50, all three hoped that these prototypes could encourage aspiring young researchers to conduct their own experiments without the limitations of a laboratory.
“One of the main aims of this project is to enable the masses to do citizen science and to do this in resource-limited settings,” said Darren.
However, no great invention comes without any hardship, and the students faced their fair share of challenges –the biggest of which was failure.
Brian said, “When you try to do experiments, you have to do many repeats and they don’t always work out.”
But even these setbacks provided valuable lessons for the students. “I think the crux of it is to not get bogged down by the failure when things don’t work, because that’s expected when you’re doing engineering, and especially in DIY biology,” said Darren.
The URECA programme helped these students achieve their aspirations of creating affordable DIY biology prototypes for the masses, four of which will be put to the test as they make their way to Davao, Philippines, next month to educate local organic farmers on how to develop better methods for finding and growing beneficial bacteria that can be used as probiotic treatment of soil, compost and animal feed.
Assoc Prof Eric Yap added, “Medical students tend to be, by nature of their coursework, an over-committed lot who excel at being taught to the test. So rather than doing just enough, I see them stretching themselves both physically as well as intellectually. Working with, challenging and being stimulated by the brightest young minds is always a pleasure.”
Two Year 3 School of Biological Sciences students presenting their work to the Minister for Education