Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The proposal

Our culminating assignment for Mod 3, and really our culminating assignment for 20.109, was an original research proposal. My lab partner and I make up our section’s Team Blue, so we would oftentimes label our Falcon tubes with the letters “TB” to identify our samples from others in the class. This concerned one of the teaching assistants of the course, who wondered why we were labeling our perfectly benign phage:gold samples as tuberculosis. This exchanged spawned our idea for our research goal: let’s cure tuberculosis!   

Upon further research, we realized that it would be simpler to tackle a slightly easier task, such as diagnosing the disease, and that the most recent global health concern pertaining to TB is the growing prevalence of the multi-drug resistant strain of the bacteria.  Since there is no accurate diagnostic tool for distinguishing between MDR-TB and wild-type TB, doctors will often treat MDR-TB patients with a standard first-line treatment regime, realize it’s not working, increase the dose of the first-line drugs, realize it’s not working, step up to the second line of drugs...and so on. This results in 1- a lot of pills/time/money wasted 2-longer time for MDR-TB patients to actually get the care they need 3-lower quality of life and increased mortality for these people. Another issue is that MDR-TB affects primarily people living in third world countries, so developing a diagnostic tool would need to be cheap and easily accessible for them. Both my lab partner and I grew up outside of the U.S., in countries where TB is still relatively prevalent, and as a result we had to get multiple blood tests when we moved here to confirm that we were free of the disease.
So now we had a goal that we both cared about: developing a diagnostic tool to distinguish between MDR-TB and TB, and we needed to start thinking of the experiments that we could use in order to achieve it. Fortunately, we were learning a lot about phage display while thinking of our proposal, and upon talking to our Mod 3 Professor, realized that this technology could be applied to biomarker
discovery in cell surfaces. In fact, it was originally developed to select peptides with an affinity for biological material, rather than for the purpose of manipulating inorganic materials like we were doing in class.
So then we started talking to people: our instructors, a grad student who is an expert on biopanning, and even a practicing physician who had experience working with TB patients. Then we read. A lot.

Then we asked questions and for feedback. A lot. By the time the weekend rolled around, both my lab partner and I felt that we had a pretty good grasp on our experimental question and how we were going to answer it. We still invested a lot of time into putting our presentation together and practicing our delivery. But it was satisfying to know that in a short period of time, we had grasped the background and some of the central challenges in this complex global health problem.

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