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UBC researchers develop a handheld device for water contamination

Researchers at UBC Okanagan have come up with a new device for detecting contaminants in drinking water, one that is not only portable and inexpensive but can provide results in real time.

Water contaminated with Cryptosporidium continues to be a worldwide health concern, one that is thought to cause between 30 and 50 per cent of childhood deaths in the developing world. The intestinal parasite can survive outside of a host for up to 16 months and has a high resistance to common disinfectants. Once it finds a home, Cryptosporidium can cause diarrhea in healthy adults and in severe cases can lead to death in children and immuno-compromised individuals.

Cryptosporidium can be a problem in the developed world, too, as witnessed in 1993 when a massive outbreak in Milwaukee infected more than 400,000 people and caused over 100 deaths.

Hence the need for an accurate and accessible method to detect the pathogen, say the authors of a new study published in the journal Sensors.

“Current methods for detecting Cryptosporidium require filtering large volumes of water, separating out the organisms, staining them with a fluorescence label and trying to identify the pathogen using a microscope,” says George Luka, a doctoral student at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering and the study’s lead author, in a press release. “The process is extremely slow, expensive and doesn’t yield reliable results.”

Luka and colleagues developed a calibrated biosensor involving anti-Cryptosporidium antibodies attached to electrodes that can act as capture probes. They then tested their biosensor for different concentrations of Cryptosporidium with the results showing promising results.

“The biosensor performed exactly as we were hoping and was able to measure Cryptosporidium contamination rapidly and without the need for complex preparations and highly-trained technicians,” says Luka. “This is an impressive solution that can easily be integrated into inexpensive and portable devices to test drinking water in real-time anywhere in the world.”

Luka says that the new biosensor has the potential to find uses beyond Cryptosporidium detection.

“The technology has real potential to be used to test all kinds of biological contamination, both in medical and environmental applications. A handheld sensor that tests the safety of our water and our environment could soon become a reality,” he says.

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About The Author /

Jayson MacLean
Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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