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Research Projects


Malaria Elimination
Recent malaria control efforts have yielded significant progress toward reducing the burden of disease (Fig. 1). An estimated 274 million fewer cases and 1.1 million fewer malaria-related deaths were reported in the last decade.

Malaria Map

Fig. 1  World map depicting malaria control efforts. Green represents malaria free countries, blue, those countries moving toward elimination, and red, those countries suffering the highest burden and attempting simple control measures. (Cotter, 2013)

Despite this success, malaria still represents a staggering global burden. The disease, endemic in 91 countries, infects 350 million people worldwide. Today, there is a window of opportunity to eliminate the disease. For the first time in decades, we have effective and affordable drugs, effective insecticides, and bed net usage strategies. The remaining piece of the puzzle is an effective tool to detect those individuals who harbor a low level of infection capable of transmitting the disease. To do this, experts believe that simple rapid diagnostic tests must become 10 to 100 times more sensitive. LIGHT investigators are employing a number of innovative technologies to meet these goals.

*Malaria Update 11/15/2016: A team of scientists and engineers at Vanderbilt University headed by Professor of Chemistry David Wright have successfully designed an inexpensive malaria test that is 100 times more sensitive than current commercial malaria tests. Read the full article.

Care and treatment programs for HIV provide life-saving and life-extending antiretroviral drugs to millions around the world. Clinical diagnostics that measure the amount of virus in a person’s blood are critical tools that support these efforts. With these tests, providers can diagnose early infant infections, evaluate the effectiveness of drug therapies, and give better care to their patients. As care and treatment programs scale up, the need for simple, rapid, and quantitative HIV diagnostics is increasingly important. Existing rapid diagnostic assays can identify HIV-p24 antigen, but are not sensitive or quantitative enough. Researchers at LIGHT are exploring innovative approaches to capture and concentrate HIV biomarkers and measure them on simple diagnostics.


Rapid Determination of Zinc Status
Zinc is an essential micronutrient that is involved in multiple aspects of cellular metabolism and its deficiency can lead to decreased immunity and increased risk of growth failure, diarrheal disease, respiratory infections and deaths. In 2011, 116,000 deaths in children under five years of age were attributed to zinc deficiency. Serum zinc concentration is the most commonly used indicator for diagnosis of zinc deficiency; however, it has limitations at the individual level and is not sensitive for mild zinc deficiency. There is an unmet need to develop a reliable, more sensitive and specific test that is easily performed; inexpensive and can be used in community setting in developing countries. We are investigating the use of metallothionein, a protein involved in transportation of physiological zinc in response to changing levels of zinc, as a biomarker of zinc nutritional status.


Improving Pregnancy Outcomes
The identification of accurate biomarkers that predict adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes, is a major problem in many developing countries. In addition, there is a need for rapid, cost-effective methods for identifying such biomarkers at points-of-care (POC) in low and middle-income countries. There is a demand for highly-specific rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) with sufficient sensitivity to detect changes in biomarkers early in the course of disease, when interventions can be successful. Because of their ubiquitous role in gene regulation, micro RNAs (miRNAs) have recently emerged as a new class of biomarkers. Several groups have identified miRNAs that are predictive adverse pregnancy outcomes. Unfortunately, existing miRNA detection technologies require complex sample processing and long turnaround times. Researchers at Vanderbilt re developing a unique test that overcomes these limitations to predict preeclampsia.


The Diagnostic Toolbox
One of the most important aspects of technology development at LIGHT is the creation of robust platforms that impact all of our projects. It is the development of these platforms that allows us to scale our discoveries from “one off” solutions to XXXX.