New Funding Will Help UCF Researcher Develop Nanotech to Detect Animal-borne Diseases

A University of Central Florida researcher will lead a new project using nanotechnology to advance research in detecting and mitigating animal-borne infectious diseases.

The project is funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Research Foundation for the Advancement of Science and the US Department of Agriculture. The funding is part of an initiative called Scialog Mitigating Zoonotic Threats. Scialog is an acronym for “science and dialogue”.

Zoonotic threats are those that originate from animals, such as mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and dengue fever. The origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is still debated, but its possible animal origin means increased interest in zoonotic diseases — as well as monitoring for diseases that may emerge in the future. .

The initiative, in its first three-year programme, will focus on launching new research into the identification, diagnosis, mechanisms and inhibition of emerging zoonotic pathogens. The program awarded 25 research teams across the country with a grant of $50,000. The goal is to create a multidisciplinary community to stimulate research on zoonotic threats.

Lauren Tittard, associate professor in the Department of Physics and researcher at the Center for Nanoscience Technology, is one of the 25 laureates. Her group analyzes nanoimaging and spectroscopy. As part of the new initiative, they will explore alternative options for the current honey bait card used to trap pathogens found in mosquito saliva.

During a recent Scialog meeting this fall, the Tetard team was able to learn from various experts in the field.

Laurene Tetard is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and a researcher at the Center for Nanoscience Technology.

“There is a huge gap between the latest technologies being developed in nanotechnology and the technology currently available to track potential threats from animals,” says Tittard.

Currently, assessing threats from mosquitoes can be a cumbersome process that involves setting up huge traps, identifying mosquitoes and performing molecular assays on them to determine potential pathogens they carry, Tittard says.

The researcher and her team, assisted by experts in nanomaterial designs and from the USDA, aim to produce an effective material that will change color in the presence of pathogens. Such an innovation would greatly reduce the work involved in trapping mosquitoes and filtering samples that would carry potential pathogens for analysis.

The scholarship will support her team on a project with real-world applications in the near future. Tittard says she is very grateful to be included in the initiative and hopes to share this opportunity with other researchers and interested students.

“We’re really at the beginning of this idea,” she says. “We have to build everything up. The opportunity to apply our expertise in research that can benefit from smarter sensors, a better basic understanding of the response of pathogens to their environments, or new treatments is very exciting. I am so grateful to be part of the Scialog team on this topic. And I hope this first step will lead to more ideas to prepare us for new, unknown biological threats.”

Tittard received her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and joined the UCSD Center for Nanotechnology, Department of Physics, part of the University of California College of Science, USA, in 2013. She has also received a CAREER Scholarship offered by the Foundation The US National Science, an award given to early-career scientists and engineers with the great promise of leading major achievements in their respective fields and who will serve as academic models.

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