Good things come in small packages

Daniel Ostberg, E’20, RISE:2016

Daniel Ostberg, E’20, left, discusses his work on bacteria-detecting sensors at RISE:2016. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Picture this: A sensor the size of two matchsticks side-by-side that can detect a bacterial infection in two minutes flat. It would quickly enable health-care providers to administer an antibiotic that targets the specific bug rather than a broad-spectrum drug that could be hit-or-miss.

That describes the mind-boggling research project that Daniel Ostberg, E’20, displayed in Innovation Alley at RISE:2016.

Traditional detection methods require a swab of the bacteria to be cultured in a dish for 24 to 48 hours. That type of test, of course, requires a laboratory setting. We’ve all been there: Think back to the test for strep throat. The method developed by Ostberg and his colleagues, on the other hand, could travel in a pocket. “It’s small, portable, and easy to transport,” he says.

In collaboration with Angell Animal Medical Center, in Jamaica Plain, Osberg and his colleagues took samples of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa that Angell staff had swabbed from the ears, noses, and other areas of a veritable menagerie: 22 animals, including rabbits, birds, dogs, cats, and even snakes. They put the samples in a broth, and then applied a dab of the broth to their electrochemical sensor, which is sensitized to pick up a unique molecule emitted by Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

The team hit a homerun. “We were able to detect Pseudomonas aeruginosa with 100 percent accuracy,” says Osberg. In the future the technology can be customized to detect a wide range of bacteria, he says.