Podcast

Rapid diagnostics: Nano discoveries and mega results

McMaster researcher Leyla Soleymani looks to the tiny world of nanotech to make some very big discoveries
Institution(s)
McMaster University
Province(s)
Ontario
Topic(s)
Engineering
Biomedical engineering
McMaster University researcher Leyla Soleymani poses for a photo.

Leyla Soleymani is Canada’s Research Chair in Miniaturized Biomedical Devices. Her passion for the miniature world of nanotech and her commitment to collaboration have led her and her colleagues at McMaster University to inventions ranging from rapid tests that use pig saliva to disease detection to a plastic wrap that repels pathogens like rain drops off a lotus leaf.

LISTEN TIME: 24 minutes, 58 seconds

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Host:

This is a Canada Foundation for Innovation podcast.

(Music in)

Hello and welcome to 10,000 ways. This is a podcast about curious researchers, leading-edge science and the joys of discovery.

Leyla Soleymani:

I’m Leyla Soleymani, Associate Professor in engineering, physics, School of Biomedical Engineering at McMaster. My research is focused on biosensors for point of care and rapid diagnostics.

Host:

Our podcast gets its name from Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

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(Music in)

Soleymani:

I work on rapid diagnostics, so, we work on things that look like the glucose monitor, but it can do a lot more. It’s a reader that you can use multiple times with disposable cartridges.

Host:

Leyla Soleymani’s soft voice reveals her natural humility. But don’t be fooled --- her research speaks loudly. Early in her career, she focused on biosensors. The first wearable, non-invasive biosensor was brought to market in 2000. The GlucoWatch was designed to help people with diabetes evaluate their blood sugar or glucose levels. Biosensors have evolved considerably since that time and Leyla now finds herself at the forefront of this research.

(Music out)

Soleymani:

You know, people now have an understanding …

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Soleymani:

… of the importance of rapid tests. As you know, everybody has used a rapid COVID test.

But there’s a lot more you can do with these tests, right? You can look at monitoring cancer, cardiovascular diseases, you can create wearable sensors, right? Wearable patches that can look at markers of interest and monitor people’s health.

Say, you know, after exercising, certain levels of certain biomolecules in your body change very quickly. So, you can’t really study that with our current tools. I mean, it’s possible, but it's difficult to study that.

These patches that monitor sweat, they could be patches that actually go and penetrate your skin by, you know, less than a millimeter and look at interstitial fluid.

And so, we’ve built a lot of these tools in vitro, so outside the body. And we have made some materials that we think will work really well with those non-invasive samples in the body.

(Music out)

Host:

Leyla has mentioned a few terms which might be unfamiliar. For example.

A biomarker is a sign of a normal or abnormal process, or of a condition or disease.

(Music out)

Off the top Leyla also talked about COVID and rapid tests. Currently, she’s trying to develop a new type of bacteria-identifying rapid test for urinary tract infections. Elderly people are particularly prone to these types of infections and what you may not know is that this type of infection can also contribute to dementia, and I think you’ll agree, this isn’t something we want to see …

(Music in)

Host:

… in our loved ones.

Soleymani:

So, if you want to detect urinary tract infection, normally you have to wait hours for the results to come back because you have to grow the bacteria. But a rapid test allows us to do this in minutes.

We’re using things that look like the glucose sensors, so they’re electrical. We use chips and these are, you know, computer chips. But for biological applications, let’s say. So, we use these chips to do our measurements. So, all the signals that I talked about, whether it’s a sensor that’s outside the body, it interfaces with the body. It’s a credit-card-size reader. 

(Music out)

Host:

Leyla’s love for everything engineered and miniscule and nano was not attributable to a single flick of the inspirational switch at a “Take Your Kids to Work Day” or one unique and influential high school mentor. It was rather, as is fitting an engineer, a very logical path …

(Music in)

Host:

…where the practical generated the passion.

Soleymani:

I think it came for me in the opposite order. I first became an engineer, then I noticed I liked it because I think everybody I know was an engineer around me. So, I decided to be in engineering for that reason, but also because I was good at math and physics and it seemed like a natural fit. If you like math and physics, and then you go to, you know, mechanical, electrical engineering. And then once I, you know, I, I did my bachelor’s degree, I realized that I really like the possibilities thatis in front of me.

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Soleymani:

I guess I was the first female professor in my department. Until very recently engineering was and has been a male dominated profession. But I think there’s also opportunities now to change that perception and to communicate the message that engineering is for everyone.  

Host:

It’s not difficult to tell why Leyla selected hers, who was recognized as one of Canada’s “Top 40 under 40” and as a “Top 100 Innovator” by the Review and she is also the holder of a modest …

(Music in)

Host:

… 50 patents.

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Soleymani:

I’ve had great mentors. I'll talk about one, also a female mentor, Professor Shana Kelley that really helped me reach my goals during my PhD. And it was really inspiring because, you know, she also had … a great career. She did it all. She, you know, she was a professor. She was a great researcher. She still is. She’s not going anywhere. And she started a company, you know, multiple companies. And now that we’re focused on and translating some of these rapid diagnostics to the market and she did all that. And she was a new mom at the time. And I think that that was just kind of having that mentor and that experience firsthand to see, you know, somebody who’s doing it all.

Even though it sounds cliché, but it really helps me every day, to try to do something impactful and try to also have a family life as well.

(Music out)

Host:

While Leyla remarks that Shana seems to be “doing it all” Leyla isn’t exactly sitting around at the lab bench and waiting for eureka moments.

For example, Leyla and colleagues from McMaster University have just announced the development of “a new form of rapid test to detect infections in farm animals, responding to the rising threat of dangerous outbreaks” particularly in pigs.

(Music in)

Host:

This nanotechnology just requires a small sample of to detect the chemical markers for infection. For real appreciation of this discovery, or more seriously, the potential impact of disease on 7600 Canadian pork farmers.

(https://www.news-medical.net/news/20220610/McMaster-scientists-develop-…)

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Host:

The discovery of this rapid test only touches on Leyla’s innovative mindset. Consider the discovery of a product called RepelWrap. RepelWrap is superhydrophobic … hydro meaning water and phobic meaning aversion. It’s sort of like raindrops beading …

(Music in)

Host:

… and then rolling off the leaves of a plant.

Soleymani:

RepelWrap is a plastic wrap that repels contamination. So, it could be liquid contaminations, or it could be pathogenic contamination like bacteria or viruses.

We have started a company and the first product … it will appear as is a coating for what we call high-touch surfaces. The surfaces that, you know, throughout a day, lots of people will touch it and can be a source of transmission of infectious diseases.

For example, future products are, you know, medical tubing, medical devices that need to stay clean inside the body or even outside the body.

(Music out)

Host:

One of the problems seen in earlier sensors was that while they captured the molecules they were targeting, they also captured non-targeted proteins, and this gummed up the miniscule sensor points. To improve the efficiency, the researchers needed to find something to fight these sticky proteins they dubbed biofouling.

Their solution, RepelWrap, was the result of a collective effort. Leyla worked with researchers like Tohid Didar who has been a trusted collaborator for many years. Ted Sargent, a nanotech prof out of the University of Toronto, has provided consistent encouragement and motivation but equally important to Leyla are the ongoing contributions made by her McMaster student protégés …

(Music in) 

Host:

… who consistently provide equal parts perspiration and inspiration.

Soleymani:

A lot of it has to do for me, working with talented students, they come up with, you know, remarkable ideas. And the nice thing about this job is that we can actually do it, and we don’t have to really worry about whether this fits … go outside the box.

It doesn’t have to totally make sense in the beginning. Right. We can explore things. We can experiment with things. We can discover things without knowing exactly where this is fitting. Right. It doesn’t have to be in a company product line.

You know, from the beginning, we have the ability to explore and be creative and kind of follow our curiosities and to really focus on the creative aspect of engineering. The more I see it is as a design and designing things and creating things. Every scientist to really make … a change has to think outside the box at some point and say, okay, we want to go from point A to B, we want to achieve this. This is the way that everybody else is doing it. But, you know, we really need a breakthrough in order to do that faster, do that, you know, cheaper, do that, you know, improve stability.

All of those things you need to do just sometimes break out of how everybody else does it and just find a new creative way.

(Music out)

Host:

Our podcast, 10,000 ways, takes its name from a quote or concept attributed to prolific American inventor, Thomas Edison. He may have been talking about light bulbs or maybe batteries. While the exact area of research may be open to speculation what is not open to discussion, are his continued efforts to persevere and experiment long after the time when others may have considered their efforts a failure.

Soleymani:

In the scientific community, you get a lot of rejection.

You wake up with the rejection letter in your inbox every day from a journal, from a grant, from an award.

(Music in)

Soleymani:

If you look in the shorter term, when you look at your career, you have these periods of failure and success and failure and success.

So, I try to remember that these things are cyclical, right? Like you just kind of have to push through this cycle of failure to get through what’s called success. But I think when you look over a longer year, longer term, right, a decade or so, looking back, those, you know, on average, you feel like the average

of that is not zero. Right? The averages is above zero. You are making important contributions and in overall, you are successful. But I think it’s hard to deal with those periods of failure.

And I’ve had a lot of great mentors that, you know, I’ve talked to and said, you know, I just cannot

get this thing to work. I just cannot get this research to fund, I cannot get this funded. And, you know, they’ve always been just there to remind me of their own kind of debt periods of failure.

And it always reminds me that these people are my inspiration, my mentors. If they’ve gone through these and, you know, they’re overall so successful, then, you know, you just kind of have to get through this.

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Host:

At some point in time, we may ask ourselves, “How do I want to be remembered?” “What do I want to leave behind?” These can be challenging questions, but they are questions with a limitless number of very personal possibilities. One of Leyla’s wishes starts with peer recognition.

Soleymani:

We write a lot of papers and that’s great.

We want to publish, and we want to publish great papers and we want people to read them. And we do that. But I think one thing that I, I really want to happen before, you know, a legacy is for me to be able to point to something, a product, it’s a reality, you know, it’s a reality you can point to and say, oh, you know, I worked that, I developed that. It’s a product that everybody knows right now. So I’m hoping that there would be, you know, a commercial product that I could say, okay, this is something I developed.

When RepelWrap was first published and generated news. I never had this, where people from so many different sectors were writing to me and wanting to buy this. Right. And we were at a proof-of-concept stage and people were, you know, they wanted from the hospitality sectors, from transportation, farmers, you name it, hospitals.

They were messaging me and said, you know, “We want to buy this thing. How do we get our hands on this?” And so that’s where I knew that, you know, there’s something there that people want.

And, you know, maybe this is it. Maybe this is that product that I, that I would want to, to kind of leave behind as a legacy. 

(Music in)

Host:

Many years ago, there was a group of authors who called themselves “The Inklings.” Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them. J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. What made this group unique was that they would gather once a week, read some of their new works and then open themselves up to a group review.

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Host:

It turns out, “Lord of the Rings” was not a singular effort created by one introvert in isolation. It was a group effort. A sum effort greater than an individual part.

(Music in)

Host:

Leyla has also adopted this philosophy of augmented collaboration.

Soleymani:

I think it’s something that’s not necessarily coming easy to me, but it’s something that I’ve learned to do over the past few years, and that’s to collaborate effectively with other scientists. I think it took me a while to learn that, to find people that we can work together creatively. We have complementary expertise, and when we get together, one plus one becomes more than two, right? It’s just the sum of our efforts is more than the actual sum. 

I think that’s something that I’ve learned, and I think to surround myself with great collaborators, to learn to gain their respect, to respect them, and for us to work on things that we think it’s fun to do, but it’s also really important, and I think that’s helped me a lot over the past few years to do great research and try to be, to stand out, I guess.

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Host:

Success. What does success mean for you?

(Music in)

Host:

Here’s what it means for Leyla.

Soleymani:

It’s been hard for me to think “How do I define my own success?” versus other people defining my success. And right now, I think the way I see it is I’m as successful as my students are.

So I really measure my success based on their success. If I’m training students who are becoming professors, starting their own labs, you know, I have students who, you know, biotech companies are fighting over to hire them.

You know, they’re doing really impactful stuff. Some are becoming entrepreneurs. I think I measure my success based on, if I’m taking part in it, I feel like if I’ve done a good job training them. This is really what I can be proud of in my career.

(Music out)

Host:

In 2020, RepelWrap beat out more than 700 entries from over 60 countries to win the Create The Future Design Contest, sponsored by Tech Briefs magazine.

RepelWrap has been dubbed “Pathogenic Teflon.” Its surface texture mimics to a great extent that of the lotus leaf but it is more than just superhydrophobic, it is almost everything phobic. Add some ripples to the wrap along with a little bit of chemistry on top and the end result is that almost nothing … sticks.

(Music in)

What does stick is the importance of collaboration.

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and 17 of their peers gathered weekly for decades, to help create literary works that were greater than the sum of the parts. Leyla and her collaborators also gather, and the ideas they generate, from keeping pigs healty to pathogenic teflon, will continue to make an impact. 

In closing, Joseph Henry was an American physicist. In one simple quote he summarizes the power of persistence, collaboration and opportunities found in chance occurrence. This is what he said.

“The seeds of great discovery are constantly floating around, but they only take root in the minds of those, well-prepared, to receive them.”

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Host:

10,000 ways is produced in the studios of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

The CFI is a non-profit corporation that invests in research infrastructure at Canadian universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research institutions. 

2022 is our 25th anniversary and over the course of the last 25 years we’ve funded projects and contributed more than nine billion dollars in infrastructure funding.

If you’re curious to learn more about the CFI, then please visit innovation dot ca. That’s …

I N N O V A T I O N dot C A.

My name is Greg Pilsworth. We’ll let the music play out and thanks very much for listening. Bye bye.

Want to know more about Leyla Soleymani?

 

Read her McMaster University bio 

Learn how rapid tests developed at McMaster are fighting infection in Canadian livestock

Find out how the next iteration of rapid tests will use chip readers and smartphones

RepelWrap works using a self-cleaning surface design microscopically “tuned” to shed everything that comes into contact with it, down to the scale of viruses and bacteria.

Read how the design mimics the water-shedding properties of the lotus leaf

Read the Tech Briefs story about award winning RepelWrap