Aussie researchers using biosensors to investigate ALS diagnosis and treatment

Researchers from GenieUS and University of Sydney plan to employ biosensors to detect TDP-43, a protein that is commonly linked to the development of ALS.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor
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Research is currently being undertaken by biotech company GenieUS together with the University of Sydney to examine how biosensors could potentially improve the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Part of carrying out the research involves employing an amperometric biosensor to detect TDP-43, a protein that is commonly linked to the development of ALS.

"The reason we wanted to do this is because there are very few handles to hold on to for ALS; it's a really heterogenous disease in terms of clinical presentation and the molecular pathways that are involved," GenieUS research associate Sam Brennan told ZDNet.

"Luckily, we do have TDP-43 as one common element in all types of ALS … and what it is, is a protein that becomes stuck together or aggregated in various confirmations.

"It's really important to know the nature of those confirmations -- some of them are huge, long things that turn fibrils [and] some are quite small lumps of that protein that fold in a weird way and end up stuck together. There are different levels of toxicity associated with these things.

"My hypothesis is there are different functional consequences of these different confirmations of TDP-43. I'd really like to know what they are because you can find TDP-43 misbehaving in this way in 97% of ALS cases. It's one of very few that run the same throughout the disease."

According to Enyi Guo from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, while using the amperometric technique is not new, it is typically applied to inorganic matters but for this research it will be applied to organic samples.

"One of the bases of our work is that a protein sample … should have influence on the conductivity of the liquid that we're going to analyse, and the liquid is going to be ultimately the sample from a patient," he said.

This approach is expected to supersede existing detection methods, such as gel electrophoresis, which can take days instead of minutes to generate a database needed for computer modelling of the disease. At the same time, using the proposed detection method it is expected to be able to assess as many different confirmations in TDP-43 using a single sample.  

"I think the first area the final device will be useful in is as a powerful research tool to investigate how TDP-43 is sticking together and causing toxicity. It will also let us re-examine TDP-43 in body fluids from a new perspective and hopefully give clinicians new prognostic information about ALS patients, something that is extremely difficult with current methods," Brennan said.

In its current form, the biosensor is a patent design of small sensor arrays but eventually the research team wants to develop the technology that can be "easily fabricated into a chip form and needs to be slotted into something that can analyse its electrical current through the sample", Brennan said.

The researchers are also hopeful that using the same application for detecting TDP-43 could potentially assist with understanding other common proteins in neurodegenerative disease, such as Parkinson's disease.  

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