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Gold nanoparticles - Detecting fungi faster

Posted: 5 December, 2017

A team of researchers in Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) are working to develop a novel, rapid diagnostic system for fungi, which is simple to use, cost effective and could potentially be administered at home. The key, gold nanoparticles.

Research Story - Gold Nanoparticles Fungi

DIT PhD student Kangze Liu.

Over a billion people are affected by fungal infections globally each year, and 1.5 million of those cases are fatal, according to the Microbiology Society, a leading voice in microbiology research in Europe. Although most infections can be treated, for example athlete’s foot or ringworm, some strains of fungi can infect the lungs and bloodstream posing a more serious threat to people with weakened immune systems, such as older people, cancer patients or those living with HIV/AIDS. Time is a critical factor in diagnosing and treating infection, and new and affordable diagnostics are needed. 

Today, fungal infections are most commonly diagnosed via fungi culture and microscopy. A sample of the infection is taken by your GP and sent to a lab, which takes 5 days to culture and be analysed by trained personnel. It requires costly equipment and it usually takes a couple of days to a week to get the results back. 

Nanoparticles, just billionths of a meter in size, are revolutionising areas of medicine such as gene and tissue engineering and targeted drug delivery. For example, these tiny particles are being explored for their ability to pinpoint and destroy cancer tumours while causing minimal damage to healthy tissue and organs. 

The DIT research team, in collaboration with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Shanghai Jiaotong University, have so far tested their new system in a lab setting, where they investigated twenty-five human samples of athlete’s foot by placing them in a liquid solution with gold nanoparticles suspended in it.

The results - the interaction between the nanoparticles and fungus caused a change in the shape of the nanoparticle from spherical to star-shaped, which in turn caused the colour to change from red to blue. This colour change happened within just two minutes and was easy to detect with the naked eye.

Research Story - Gold Nanoparticles Fungi 3

Change in shape of the nanoparticle from spherical to star-shaped caused by the interaction between the nanoparticles and fungus

“It’s exciting to get that rapid colour change, which is so easy to read. We are now working on ways to translate these findings into real life by developing a testing kit for fungal infections that can be self-administered at home,” says DIT Principal Investigator, Dr Furong Tian.

Tobiloba Sojinrin, a PhD student on the project, explains, “It’s early days, but the goal is that it will be much faster than traditional testing methods. We’re aiming to have the results in two minutes. We want the kit to be cheap and widely available in pharmacies and grocery stores. It won’t require complex, costly equipment, and therefore eliminates the need for trained personnel to operate that equipment.”

Another PhD student, Kangze Liu, is building an app to accompany the kit. “We want users to be able to upload a photo of the colour change to the app so that we can analyse it in the lab. We hope it will provide additional results, such as the type and concentration of the fungi, which could indicate the severity of the infection.”  

With help from DIT Hothouse - the award-winning knowledge transfer office at DIT - and with funding from Enterprise Ireland, the team is exploring the feasibility of developing a commercial product. They are also testing their new system on a larger number of samples.

“This kit could save both the patient and the healthcare system time and money,” says Dr Tian. “This new system could have much wider applications, for example it could potentially be used for the rapid detection of fungi on surfaces in laboratories, hospitals, farms and homes, and in water and food. If fungi are found, people could then take preventative action to destroy them and stop them from entering the body in the first place, thus limiting infection.”

Read an academic paper on this research recently published in the Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry journal – ‘Plasmonic gold nanoparticle for detection of fungi and human cutaneous fungal infections’. 

Research Story - Gold Nanoparticles Fungi 2

Dr Furong Tian working with her PhD students Kangze Liu and Tobiloba Sojinrin.