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Chemical Engineering Professor Takes Aim at Diseases

The ability to rapidly identify diseases and begin counteractive measures is key when faced with a possible epidemic or, worse, the use of biological weapons.

Cong Trinh, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UT, is developing a method to greatly improve the time involved in both identification and removal of such pathogens through the concept of a Virulent Pathogen Resistance program, or ViPaRe.

“In an age when pathogens can be a weapon, having a rapid response is absolutely vital,” said Trinh. “Our goal is to be able to identify and target such threats within weeks rather than years, while at the same time not harming the host.”

Cong Trinh Works in Laboratory
Cong Trinh, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, gazing at lab instrument..Photo by Jack Parker .Used in Science Alliance Report 2013.

Through ViPaRe, devices are being designed using a blend of statistics, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, and biology. That broad mix is required since the machines must be capable of taking samples, identifying which pathogens are present, and attacking them at their genetic core.

Supercomputers, with their ability to make calculations and break down data millions of times faster than human researchers, make the concept possible, according to Trinh.

“It currently takes a long time to analyze small molecules, which is unacceptable if you’re talking about facing an epidemic,” he said. “We are developing specialized software and using ‘smart’ machines to dramatically reduce diagnosis and response times.”

Taking such a targeted, specialized approach to fighting pathogens has other benefits, such as curtailing the rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes since Trinh’s method attacks them genetically instead of via medicine.

ViPaRe would also allow treatment to change as diseases mutate, eliminating potentially hazardous new outbreaks of old illnesses. For example, while flu outbreaks occur every year the severity of those outbreaks differs because variations in the strain make it time-consuming for officials to figure out exactly which strain they are facing and produce the correct vaccine.

Using Trinh’s idea, medical personnel would be able to take blood samples, identify the particular strain, and eliminate it within weeks rather than over the course of months.

In recognition of his work, the US Department of Defense named Trinh a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Young Faculty award winner for 2017.