What is happening at the Li Lab? – Research topics summed up


As you can see on the website under “Research“, we specialize in DNAzymes and aptamers, or more broadly, functional nucleic acids (FNAs). There, you can also learn a bit more about what these actually are. Within our research group, different people work on different targets for FNAs. We thought we’d sum them up for you to get a nice overview 🙂

Within our group, we aim to develop FNAs for use in diagnostics. This includes different targets from bacteria, to viruses, and more.

Bacterial targets include Campylobacter, Fusobacterium nucleatum, Clostridium difficile, and Treponema pallidum (cause of syphilis).

Campylobacter is one of four key global causes of diarrhoeal disease. It is considered to be the most common bacterial cause of human gastroenteritis in the world.

Fusobacterium nucleatum is associated with many poor health conditions such as gum disease, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and colorectal cancer. More recently, it has also been linked to endometriosis.

Clostridium difficile is a bacterial species that causes infection of the colon. Serious infection may lead to hospitalization. C. difficile infection can be spread easily and is difficult to diagnose. It is often diagnosed by looking at the symptoms and culturing of the bacteria, but this method is time-consuming and inaccurate.

Treponema pallidum is the species of bacteria which causes syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection which has been on the rise in recent years. Current diagnostics measure antibodies produced in response to syphilis infection as Treponema pallidum is difficult to culture.

In addition to bacteria, our FNAs also target viruses. Viral targets include SARS-CoV-2, norovirus, and influenza.

SARS-CoV-2, and the resulting COVID-19 disease, has thrown our world into a pandemic at the end of 2019, resulting in 6 million deaths so far. Many variants of the virus have arisen overtime, making vaccination and detection more challenging.

Norovirus is the cause of over 50% of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. Infection with the virus primarily results in vomiting and diarrhoea. Norovirus illness brings a large disease burden as it is estimated to cost $60 billion worldwide due to healthcare costs and lost productivity.

Influenza virus, more commonly known as the flu virus, causes respiratory illness, infecting the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. Diagnosis of the flu is most commonly based on symptoms. One challenge of diagnosing influenza through diagnostic testing is the existence of many influenza subtypes.

On top of that, we have some people working on pancreatic cancer, malignant hyperthermia, and the conservation of species

Pancreatic cancer is a cancer which is rarely diagnosed in the early stages as symptoms only develop once the cancer has metastasized to other organs. Therefore, the 5-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is shockingly low, at around 12.5%. Earlier diagnosis of pancreatic cancer would improve patients’ chances of remission.

Malignant hyperthermia is a severe reaction that can occur in response to medication used for general anesthesia. Symptoms include an increase in heart rate, body temperature, and muscle rigidity. If left untreated, malignant hyperthermia can be fatal. Currently, diagnosis of malignant hyperthermia relies on the response of biopsy samples to the different drugs. A less invasive method with decreased turn-around time using FNAs is desired.

Conservation of species is important for maintaining ecosystems, as each species occupies its own niche in that ecosystem. Disappearance of a species can have disastrous effects on the ecosystem itself. In the Li Lab, the focus is on the conservation of caribou, a large species of reindeer. The intervention of humans through oil and gas exploration in Alberta has led to a decrease in caribou habitat, in turn leading to a decrease in caribou. Monitoring caribou in the environment can indicate the success or failure of intervention to restore caribou habitat. By designing an FNA-based test, we hope to monitor the caribou species in the field and help efforts in the conservation of the caribou species.

So, these are the different things we’re working on in the Li Lab. The final goal of the majority of these projects is the development of point-of-care tests which serve to improve pitfalls of current tests. These include invasiveness, high turn-around time, and costs. We hope it made some things a bit clearer, and that it’s piqued your interest for what we’re doing around here!

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