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Glow sticks are timeless fun, but they aren't just for parties anymore

Remember those fun parties where you swung glow sticks above your head or wore them as necklaces? Well, those party favors are now finding a surprising application in the realm of biothreat detection.

Researchers at the University of Houston are utilizing the chemistry of glow sticks to identify emerging biothreats for the United States Navy.

This innovative approach holds promise for improving rapid detection technology and supporting forward deployable testing efforts.

Expanding threats and detection needs

Due to climate change, the environmental niches suitable for threat-producing species are expanding. Consequently, environmental biothreats are becoming more accessible and raising concerns from a biodefense perspective.

Detecting and diagnosing emerging biothreats is crucial, particularly in far-forward settings. Addressing this pressing need is Dr. Richard Willson, Huffington-Woestemeyer Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Willson and his research team aim to apply the chemistry of glow sticks to develop rapid diagnostic tests called lateral flow immunoassays (LFIs).

Rapid diagnosis using glow stick chemistry

Willson highlights the potential of glow sticks for developing low-cost and low-toxicity diagnostic tests.

“We are for the first time applying the shelf-stable, low-toxicity, low-cost chemistry of common glow sticks to develop bright and rapid diagnostic tests called lateral flow immunoassays (LFIs) like fluorescent-dyed nanoparticles that, when exposed to glow stick activation chemicals, emit bright visible light that can be readily imaged using a smartphone or simple camera,” said Willson.

“We will adapt the technology of glow sticks widely used in military signaling applications to excite fluorescent LFI particles to increase their detectability.”

This innovative adaptation of glow stick technology, already widely used in military signaling applications, augments the detectability of fluorescent LFI particles.

Science behind glow sticks

To understand how this technology works, let’s delve into the underlying science of glow sticks.

When a glow stick is bent, it breaks a small glass container inside that holds a mixture of 3% hydrogen peroxide and another substance. This mixture reacts with a chemical stored outside the glass, resulting in the formation of a new, highly reactive substance.

When this substance collides with special colorful dyes present in the glow stick, it transfers energy to the dyes, causing them to emit light.

Willson’s outstanding research has led to a significant partnership with the U.S. Navy. The future prospects include receiving task orders of up to $1.3 million to further enhance rapid detection technology for emerging biothreats and develop high affinity reagents.

High-affinity reagents are substances or molecules that exhibit a strong and specific attraction or binding to a particular target.

Revolutionizing point-of-care diagnostics

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for rapid, cost-effective, and ultrasensitive diagnostic tools.

Conventional lateral flow immunoassays, such as home pregnancy tests and COVID-19 rapid antigen tests, have limitations in sensitivity and single-chemical detection capabilities.

The novel Glow LFIs developed by Willson’s team show exceptional promise in addressing these limitations.

“Our novel Glow LFIs are very sensitive; preliminary results for Glow LFI detection of SARS-CoV-2 nucleoprotein spiked in nasal swab extract show an unoptimized limit of detection of 100 picograms per milliliter, already better than typical LFIs,” said Willson, whose research with the glow stick method also shows detection of other known biothreats.

Beyond biothreat detection

Willson’s research extends beyond the realm of biothreat detection. It paves the way for other cost-effective, innovative diagnostic technologies that promise improved health outcomes.

The glow stick methodology could revolutionize the field of diagnostic testing and help tackle emerging biothreats in a rapid, reliable, and affordable manner.

In summary, the unexpected integration of glow stick chemistry into biothreat detection research is yielding remarkable results. The University of Houston’s utilization of glow sticks in lateral flow immunoassays shows great potential for enhancing rapid detection technology.

By adapting the widely-used signaling technology of glow sticks, the detectability of fluorescent LFI particles is significantly increased. Collaborations with the U.S. Navy further highlight the practical applications and importance of this research.

Willson’s pioneering work is advancing the field of biothreat detection, while also contributing to the development of innovative diagnostic technologies with broader implications for human health.

With chemistry as a foundation, the possibilities for proactive and efficient responses to emerging biothreats are expanding, reinforcing our readiness to protect public health and ensure global security.


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