University of British Columbia professor Sudip Shekhar is the first Canadian to receive the Schmidt Science Polymath award, which will grant his team roughly $3 million over a five-year period to develop an accurate, small and accessible test for various health problems.
As a researcher, Shekhar has multiple focuses including communications systems and medical technologies, which requires a lot of collaboration with his colleagues. He researched circuits for Intel Corporation, a large-scale producer of computer technology, from 2008 until 2013 in Oregon, United States, before becoming a professor in Vancouver.
Shekhar’s goal is to use the science of light and silicon — the material most known for its role in computer microchips — to create a credit-card-sized test for a variety of conditions, which he called a biosensor. A biological sensor collects chemical information from a sample, such as blood or saliva, and converts it into a signal that can then be communicated.
The photonic microchips Shekhar will use to develop the test can already be manufactured cheaply, and are used for lab testing. However, the expensive measurement equipment attached to the microchip is not portable, so it stays in a lab, he said. Another limitation is the current technology requires trained technicians to use.
Shekhar called COVID-19 the entry door, because a more reliable, sensitive and selective quantitative test for COVID-19 could help communities stay open during outbreaks. The test he is working on would also provide information on which strain of a virus infected a person.
During the next decade, this diagnostic test biosensor could improve health screening access in isolated communities, Shekhar said.
The test could shorten wait-times by providing fast results in pharmacy and at-home settings, which would also be useful for emergency services that need to quickly assess what the problem is.
The biggest challenge for Shekhar’s team will be shrinking this technology without losing any reliability. He compared the challenge ahead to the transition from super-computers that took up a whole room, to personal computers and smartphones.
“Now there is a lot of impetus to shrink those down to a printer-size. And you can think of that as your personal computer, put in the doctors’ offices and drug stores of the world. That is going to have the next big impact,” he said. “Can we shrink it down further and make it so inexpensive that I can really put it everywhere in the world? If we can do that, that would really be democratizing medical care.”
He plans to report significant progress during each year of the project, and hopes the test will be available to medical professionals before the five-year mark. If successful, Shekhar’s test will be able to screen for multiple viruses with one sample, just like in a lab. It could also help people who need to monitor chronic conditions, such as heart problems.
Troponin is a protein complex that can be detected through blood samples, and a high level of troponin is associated with cardiac arrest, Shekhar said. If a person who is at-risk for a heart attack tested themselves at home and found high levels, they would know they need to go to a doctor immediately.
The potential includes dramatically improving the lifestyle of a person who usually has to go to appointments for routine tests.
If successful, the test will be able to diagnose health problems as accurately as a lab test that uses quantitative data. However, doctors will likely instruct patients to come in for lab-setting tests when a patient calls them reporting concerning results, Shekhar said.
“It would be just like how some [diabetic] people take insulin tests. Doctors may look at it as a screening test with more data.”
Shekhar is collaborating with UBC professors and researchers, but he is always looking to add more skill-sets to his project, he said. Contributors include bio-engineering professor Karen Cheung and Lukas Chrostowski who provides expertise in computers and light science. UBC professor Cheryl Wellington contributes her lab medicine expertise.
Nurses are also providing feedback about the kind of device they would trust, because sample collection — how blood is drawn or saliva is collected — is an important part of developing a practical tool.
The polymath award funds high-risk and high-reward research projects that most investors would usually decline to take on. Shekhar joins a group of 12 professors who received this award for their sucess in interdisciplinary science since the Schmidt Science Polymath award was first created in 2021.