Married Drexel profs have technology to detect a nasty germ

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Wan Shih and her husband, Wei-Heng, are developing technology to better detect a nasty germ.

WAN AND Wei-Heng Shih, both 60, of Bryn Mawr, are co-founders of Lenima Field Diagnostics. Both are professors at Drexel and are developing piezoelectric-sensor technology that can detect a germ that causes diarrhea and is primarily responsible for 14,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, says the CDC. I spoke with Wan Shih.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this technology?

A: We have a long history on working with piezoelectric materials that started in the 1990s. We are trying to give doctors an inexpensive tool that will make it easy to confirm or rule out if a patient has Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile, the germ that causes diarrhea.

Q: How's the tool work?

A: We have designed a plate that works like the piezoelectric tuning forks that keep quartz watches ticking on time. The plate is very thin with a crystalline structure that facilitates electrically driven oscillation. The slightest change to this structure results in a change in the pitch of the oscillation. This is significant because the surface of the crystals can then be utilized to catch certain DNA molecules. So, when the plate contains a few molecules of C. difficile taken from a stool sample, its tune changes, letting technicians know it's C. difficile.

Q: Research funding?

A: We have funding from the National Institutes of Health, small-business grants.

Q: Value proposition?

A: Our plate sensor gives us an advantage over tests on the market right now for C. difficile, which require a complicated process of isolating and amplifying DNA from a sample before you can confirm the infection. These tests require expensive equipment that isn't available in 80 percent of hospitals, and samples have to be sent off to a lab. Our technology eliminates all those steps; is simple, inexpensive and portable; testing can be done in the field; and you will have the results in 30 to 40 minutes.

Q: Potential customers?

A: The initial target customers will be small and medium-size hospitals, nursing homes.

Q: Who gets C. difficile?

A: Nursing-home patients, older people on antibiotics and with weak immune systems.

Q: Biggest challenge?

A: We need a box we can deploy in the field or a clinic. We need about $2 million to build a prototype and do clinical trials.

Q: What's next?

A: We'll apply this winter for a federal grant of up to $3 million to develop the prototype. If approved, probably next year at this time we'll get some funds. We've been talking to product-development companies to turn the technology into a box. It can be built in 12 to 18 months.

Q: Any employees?

A: Me, my husband and two research assistants.

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