Portable Mid-infrared Tool for Analysis of Mosquito Vectors of Malaria

Keywords– Quantum cascade lasers, mid-infrared spectroscopy, biochemical identification, integrated vector management, malaria vector monitoring, mosquito trait determination.

CC Mosquito Image courtesy of Ape Lad on Flickr

CC Mosquito Image courtesy of Ape Lad on Flickr

Project Summary - This proposal aims to develop a novel QCL-based IR-spectroscopic tool to monitor disease vectors (initially mosquitoes) on a population scale, and therefore improve the implementation of vector control programmes designed to block disease transmission. The World Health Organisation states that mosquito borne diseases affect half the worlds population and considering malaria alone, the death toll is >400,000 per year. Successful identification of important traits in the mosquito population to higher accuracy (age, species, insecticide resistance, infection carrying, etc.) can be used as part of a more effective integrated vector management framework. For example, mosquitoes must live for 10-14 days after infection to allow malaria parasites (Plasmodium species) to complete their development and transmit the disease, therefore the evaluation of the age structure of mosquito populations through this tool would allow one to implement appropriate vector control strategies to block disease transmission. The mosquito is just one of a number of disease vectors however, the same methodology could be readily applied to many other vectors due to the universal ‘biological fingerprinting’ nature of the mid-infrared technology. In this case, the impact widens to include some 6,000,000,000 people at risk of vector borne disease. Being able to contribute to a solution to this problem means the potential for impact is also great since the problem is a truly global challenge.

The impacts of this PhD will also be felt across many other applications that can benefit from biological fingerprint spectroscopy (e.g. of breath, urine, fluids). Through miniaturisation and developing portability, this project will enable the move of biological analysis closer to the point of need. Personal biological monitoring and in-vitro diagnostics (IVD) represents a $50bn market that is expanding significantly. This market is a keen user of new technology, and the technology developed here may create impact in global market.

The Challenge - You will develop a higher performance replacement for the Fourier transform infrared spectrometer (FTIR) in order to enable improved diagnostic capability for field trials on biological samples. This will be brought about by state of the art semiconductor processing of bespoke quantum cascade lasers, and their optimisation for mid-infrared biochemical fingerprinting. This technology will form the basis of a tool that can be made small and portable enough to replace the existing cumbersome, and slow spectroscopic tools of the last 50 years. In order to analyse significant population numbers higher speed is now essential. The samples can be potentially any organism, however specific to this PhD would be the identification and assessment of mosquito populations. The sampling area of existing instruments is large relative to the size of the insect, so effectively the spectrum is averaged over the whole body. Your new device will enable much higher brightness which means that higher speed and microscopic imaging can be performed on specific sites of the mosquito body for improved trait identification. You will gain an understanding of the light-matter interactions relevant to mid-infrared vibrational spectroscopy of simple (chemical) and complex (biological) molecules. In complex organisms, with many different tissues extraction of biological traits will involve identifying spectral differences followed by advanced statistical analysis. You will trial your system and benchmark it against state of the art FTIR machines on real biological samples grown in the insectaries here in Glasgow for this purpose. Part of you work therefore will be in understanding the life cycle of the control and malaria infected mosquitoes and relating this back to the spectroscopic fingerprinting.  Finally, funding is being sought for detailed studies on native mosquito populations with colleagues in Africa and this opens an opportunity for field trials of the instrument.

Bio-photonics at the microscopic scale in the mid-infrared is also a relatively new area which offers great potential beyond the mosquito. The synergy between the engineering technology ‘push’ through to the entomology application demand ‘pull’ is a perfect ground for interdisciplinary research, significant high profile publication and conference outputs. Through your PhD and the research network you will form, we will also look to apply the technology to new areas of opportunity.

Training - The training from academics (expert in their fields) in more than one department will be invaluable and enable you to converse in the many languages of physics, engineering, chemistry and biology. This range will form a unique learning experience in itself, but we will compliment this academic learning with support for professional training and workshop attendance. Discipline hopping in this research topic that embraces several novel and timely developments, will enable exposure to a wider field of publication and conference presentation, which we shall support through group funds in addition to this scholarship. Due to the truly global nature of vector borne disease, we envisage a great opportunity to create extremely high impact outputs which can be used to accelerate your future career. The novel nature of the application of the technology will also lead to exposure to intellectual property protection and the associated knowledge exchange process. The supervisory group has significant ties with industry leading to further opportunity for placement and training in a corporate environment. Beyond academic excellence, the project team will fully encourage, support and develop every aspect of the doctoral student, positioned to be the next generation of research leader.

Project Team - Due to the nature of the research on offer and being cross-disciplinary, spanning across two schools and two institutes, the supervisory team is quite large. This is to ensure that an expert in each area is available for all aspects of the research. The semiconductor fabrication expertise exists in the Engineering department, knowledge of the interaction between infrared light and molecular structure in School of Chemistry and finally, knowledge of the mosquitoes’ life cycle and understanding the biology behind the traits lies in the College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences. The team members are : Dr. David Childs (primary contact), Lecturer in Photonic Devices and Systems within the Electronics and Nanoscale Engineering Division (ENE), School of Engineering. Dr. Francesco Baldini, AXA Research Fund Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine. Prof. Klaas Wynne, Chair in Chemical Physics, Ultrafast Chemical Physics group, School of Chemistry. Dr. Lisa Ranford-Cartwright, Reader in Parasite Genetics at the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation (III). Dr. Heather M. Ferguson, Reader in infectious disease ecology in the Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine (BAHCM).

The research environment and facilities to be accessed during the PhD are world class in many areas. Facilities include; the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre which houses over £32M of nanofabrication tools for semiconductor processing in a 1350 m2 clean room, the photonic devices and systems group (Engineering) laboratories for the test and measurement of semiconductor optoelectronic devices at all frequencies from the UV through to terahertz, the ultrafast chemical physics group (Chemistry) laser labs including ultrafast femtosecond lasers, FTIR and general spectroscopy and analysis labs, and finally the insectaries and parasite containment facilities (Life Sciences) provide access to several malaria mosquito species and human malaria parasite lines.

PhD candidate - Mauro Pazmino