Chau Tran, a Laidlaw Scholar at Hong Kong University, on her research “Aptamer-mediated DNA nanocage encapsulated gold nanoparticles for high-sensitivity lateral flow point-of-care medical devices."
Malaria is an infectious disease caused by transmission of Plasmodium parasites through female Anopheles mosquitoes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of the world’s population is at risk of the disease. In 2018, there were 228 million cases of malaria and 405,000 deaths estimated, and children under the age of five are the most vulnerable group.
Malaria vaccine has recently been introduced in a few regions, but the efforts to manage and eradicate the disease still depend on timely and accurate diagnosis and treatment. Because the five malaria parasites infect patients differently, the WHO recommends using rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) as one of two diagnostic tests for prompt confirmation of malaria before treatments. RDTs are simple to use and do not require skilled technicians or laboratory equipments.
Conventional RDTs are based on antibodies, which have low stability, high cost, and batch-to-batch variation, hindering their applications in remote areas where the risk is usually the highest. One way to overcome these challenges is to come up with an alternative to antibodies to detect malaria biomarkers. In my project, I used DNA aptamers which are single-stranded DNA that can bind to targets with high affinity and specificity. We normally think of DNA as a genetic material; however, it can also be synthesised and selected to bind to specific biomarkers. Compared to antibodies, aptamers have higher stability, lower cost, and simpler manufacturing. So, they are ideal for biosensing. To apply aptamers into diagnostic devices, I conjugated them to nanoparticles for the development of red signals which can be visualised in lateral flow assays.
I hope this novel approach can improve the sensitivity and stability as well as lower the cost of the current tests, making timely and accurate diagnosis accessible to millions of people around the world.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
My passion for biomedical science comes from witnessing my family members suffering from different diseases. For this project, my inspiration came from me and my sister’s experiences of having severe viral infections when we were little. We had a few blood tests whose results took quite a long time to come. It was painful and uneasy having needles inserted into your veins several times and having headache, fever, and diarrhea all the while. But we received proper treatment and recovered afterwards.
When I grew up, I realised that we were very lucky because this, unfortunately, is not the case for millions of people around the world. Indeed, viral infections, such as malaria, are the leading causes of deaths in high-risk areas, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s devastating to know that people, especially children, are dying because of a preventable and curable disease like malaria. With further research on its related problems, I learned that timely and accurate diagnosis is important for treatments, prevention of drug resistance, and management of the disease. Yet, the current technologies have several shortcomings, such as low stability, high cost, and batch-to-batch variations. That’s why I wanted to find an alternative and hopefully a better solution to help make malaria diagnosis more efficient, accurate, and less costly. I also want to develop a user-friendly device which comes handy, like a pregnancy test, to make it accessible to people in the most remote areas.
What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw scholarship experience so far?
The Conference in UCL was one of the most memorable highlights from my experience with the programme so far. During the event, Laidlaw scholars from different universities around the world gathered and shared their research projects and experiences. I got to meet brilliant researchers and learn about the aspiration behind their projects.
We also had a 3MT presentation to present our research. Everyone was really passionate, and each project was meaningful in its own way. When it was my turn, I was nervous but at the same time, determined to tell my story in the best way possible. Luckily, it came across many of the audience and I won the competition. The joy and encouragement I received from winning truly inspired me to continue doing research and believe in the power of science to create change.
After the event, everyone had a lot of discussions about our projects. And our conversations extended to other topics, such as climate change and humanities, during and until the end of our gathering dinner. It was amazing to see the connections we formed in just two days. I guess because we all shared something in common, and we all came to London for a reason. Hence, these memories stay vividly with me to this day.
What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys so far, and what did you learn from it?
For me personally, it was challenging to answer the question of “What’s next?” with my project after the summer ended. Two months were too short for developing a diagnostic test, but whether I should turn this project into a year-long research was a difficult decision. The idea of being responsible for a long-term research project was overwhelming. I was afraid of unforeseen obstacles, having to come up with detailed experiments and determine the direction of the project. Yet, my aspiration to develop the technology and see it happen urged me to continue. Though I did face some obstacles and uncertainties, I was able to overcome and learn a lot from them thanks to the guidance and support of my supervisor and mentors. In January 2020, I had a visit to a National Hospital in Viet Nam with my supervisor and mentor to discuss the potential of testing my device on clinical samples with our collaborator. By then, I realised I had come a long way with my project.
I guess the biggest lesson I learned was that if I hadn’t tried, I would have never known about all the possibilities waiting for me. So, even if the journey looks overwhelming and difficult, just go ahead and enjoy the climb!
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
As a Laidlaw Scholar, I am not only a researcher but also a leader. By that, I mean not just doing research alone but doing it with others and tackling challenging issues. As researchers, sometimes we are devoted to our projects only. But I think it’s important to identify the problems that we want to solve by observing the struggles and needs of those around us. Also, working with others who are more experienced and those who share the same vision and passion makes the process more enjoyable and valuable. At least that applies well to me and gives purpose to everything I’ve done so far.
Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?
I’ve always been inspired by dreamers, those who lead with their ambition to change the world. One of them is Huyen Chip, a writer and computer scientist based in Silicon Valley who grew up in a small rice-farming village in Vietnam.
I’ve known Huyen through her books and blogs. Her first book “Xách ba lô lên và đi” talked about her 3-year adventure around Asia, Africa, and South America. But Huyen’s dreams are not just travelling and writing; she also wants to inspire young people and contribute to the progress of machine learning production. Instead of directly going to college, Huyen took gap years travelling, writing, and working on different projects. Eventually, she decided to go back to college to further pursue her passion. Her latest book “Giấc mơ Mỹ - Đường đến Stanford” talked about her time in Stanford University where she did her degrees in Computer Science. Huyen continues writing her blogs and worked for different tech companies. She then joined an AI startup which was officially launched a few days ago.
I could see myself through Huyen’s stories. She grew up in a small village, I spent my childhood in my mom’s shop at a small market. We’re travellers, women in STEM, Vietnamese who value their cultures but also want to change the conventional stereotypes, and dreamers who always strive for more. Her stories inspire me to believe in my dreams and to pursue all of them within my lifetime.
You can find out more about Huyen Chip through her website: https://huyenchip.com/
Can you describe a scene from the future you are striving to create?
My dream is to create better and more sustainable solutions in healthcare and medicine using science and technology.
Today, we’re facing a pandemic, among other diseases, where the needs for diagnostic tests, medicines, and vaccines are urgently needed to save millions of lives. Working in a biomedical application lab, advancements and obstacles related to these fields have been topics of discussion during our lab’s weekly meetings. Though there’s still much work to be done, I am optimistic of novel solutions because of the fast pace of technology development and the enormous effort of scientists spent on tackling these issues. I imagine those solutions are not the modified versions of the current ones but will be more innovative and sustainable. And that is the future that I want to see, where the advancement in science drives the progress of society and helps people live a healthier and happier life.
📽️ Film Recommendation: The Shawshank Redemption (1994) - a story about hope and friendship behind the fence of Shawshank State Penitentiary
🎵 My quarantine anthem: Dancing in the Moonlight - Toploader
📚 My top book recommendation: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi - a memoir about a life of a neurosurgeon and lung cancer patient
📺 YouTube Go-To: Pick Up Limes - a channel with vegan recipes, lifestyle and health, shared by a registered dietician
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: I received a surprise message from my boss whom I previously worked with at a children organization. She was asking me about the pandemic situation in Hong Kong, updates on my work, and for a selfie (: She sent me their pictures and their work so far. It was a really nice catch-up conversation because I haven’t met her for a long time. I am happy to know that their plans and progress have come a long way since I left. We planned to meet up when the borders are opened again, and I can’t wait to see her and everyone soon!
Follow Chau's personal blog on Instagram where she shares her photos and writings! Sometimes, poems too.