An Emory team won bronze in the graduate division of the 2016 Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC) out of six finalist teams for its invention of Rolosense, a diagnostic machine that can locate gene variations, according to Khalid Salaita, the team’s adviser and Emory associate professor of chemistry.

Rolosense, a synthetic DNA motor, can detect gene variation and therefore diagnose some diseases, Salaita said. The synthetic motor uses a bead that has a five-micron diameter, and fuels its movements with chemical energy, according to the CIC’s website. Spheres on the Rolosense hold “legs” of DNA that are bound and released from the substrate, moving the sphere, the website said. Rolosense can move at speeds 1,000 times faster than previous motors.

Lenses can then be attached to the camera of a smartphone to convert the phone’s camera into a microscope that can take videos of particle motion, Blanchard said.

Emory alumnus Kevin Yehl (15G) teamed up with Salaita to develop Rolosense, which has several practical applications, including sensing the concentration of lead in tap water, Salaita said. Aaron Blanchard, a second-year student in Laney Graduate School and Georgia Institute of Technology, worked with Yehl and Salaita on the project.

Yehl added that Rolosense can detect diseases such as Zika virus — an example of why Rolosense is valuable to public health.

The DNA motor began as Yehl’s Ph.D. thesis at Emory in 2012. It took about two years to develop thereafter, according to Salaita.

A patent for Rolosense is currently pending, and the team is actively pursuing commercialization through Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer, according to Blanchard.

The CIC is an annual competition open to undergraduate and graduate inventors whose work covers a range of disciplines, from engineering to computer science, according to Salaita. Judges select finalists based on criteria that includes the concept’s level of innovation, the significance of the project’s findings and the invention’s potential societal value.  

Since its win, the team has continued to develop Rolosense. Blanchard added that feedback from the judges and other collegiate inventors motivated the team to learn more about the invention’s practical uses.

“Today, the vast majority of the world’s population has access to a cell phone, but very few people have access to the molecular diagnostic capabilities you get at a top-tier clinic or hospital in the United States,” Blanchard said. “Rolosense allows you to take the lab into the field or the patient’s home … to give information about personal health by using a smartphone.”

Blanchard said that although the team hopes to eventually commercialize Rolosense, the focus is still on research and development.

“My hope is that someday we can get to the point of detecting single molecules,” Blanchard said.

Yehl said that competing in the CIC furthered his drive to develop the project.

“The fact that we placed and got such positive feedback from successful inventors … really pushed us to move more rapidly and devote more resources to develop this project,” Yehl said.

Yehl and Blanchard presented their project at the CIC in Washington, D.C., Nov. 3, and they travelled to Alexandria, Va., Nov. 4 to receive their bronze medal at the awards ceremony.

“It’s very prestigious to win these kinds of competitions, and moving forward, these experiences will help [Yehl and Blanchard] to progress even further in their careers,” Salaita said.