UCL research roundup: ‘transmissable’ Alzheimer’s, Chirp and nano-HIV tests

UCL research roundup: ‘transmissable’ Alzheimer’s, Chirp and nano-HIV tests

Janice Yiu highlights three stories from UCL research that you may have missed over the past few months.

Is Alzheimer’s disease ‘transmissible’?

It is widely believed that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by an abnormal build-up of specific proteins (amyloid plaques and tau) in the brain. What if these proteins could be transmitted between humans, leading to the ‘contagious’ development of Alzheimer’s? Well, that is the question posed by the research of a team at the UCL Institute of Neurology, led by Professor John Collinge.

Between 1958 and 1985, around 2000 people suffering from short stature in the UK received treatments with human growth hormones (HGH) taken from the pituitary glands of dead bodies. Some of the HGH samples were contaminated by prions. Prions are infectious mis-folded proteins that can form plaques leading to progressive neurodegenerative conditions such as mad cow disease. In fact, the cadaver derived HGH treatment stopped because a fatal brain disease, CJD, was being reported in patients.

Collinge and his colleagues thus conducted brain autopsy studies on 8 patients with CJD from this cohort and observed in six of the brains amyloid-plaque related pathologies. This sparked several questions.  These patients were in the age range of 36-51, with an absence of the usual genetic factors and arguably too young to develop Alzheimer’s. Could these ‘healthy’ individuals have higher risks of developing Alzheimer’s after being exposed to prions that were either adhered to the surfaces of surgical instruments or in the cadaver-derived HGH?

At such an early stage, the study alone does not suffice to prove Alzheimer’s could be transmitted between humans, according to Collinge. Further evidence is needed, with a suggested follow up study to include investigating whether surgical procedures and blood transfusions could be associated with transmitting Alzheimer’s disease.

Chirp – When devices ‘sing’ to each other

chirp soundcloud 005_600_300

Your internet is down and you have no data left, but you so desperately want to share an image with a friend. Well, imagine if you could do so using only sound. That is the crux of the Chirp app.

The concept was first developed and launched in 2012 by members of UCL’s Department of Computer Science. Recently the founder of Chirp, Patrick Bergel, announced the introduction of Chirp’s Software Develop Kit. This platform enables any app developers to utilise Chirp technology on anything from payments to gaming.

Chirp technology works by devices ‘singing’ to each other. The app encodes your data into an audio signal with a unique pitch, tone-colour and amplitude. This is emitted from the speaker of your phone and interpreted by the microphone of the receiving device . There’s no need to worry about background noises, amidst the bustle of Central London; the app has been designed to ignore traffic sounds and speech.

Chirp technology has the potential to transmit data to large audiences with ease, leading to foreseeable applications in charity and media campaigning.

Nano-scale HIV tests


Proteins binding to target receptors on the cantilevers. 

Finding an accurate and fast test for multiple HIV viruses has always been a massive headache for clinicians and scientists. Now, not only have researchers developed a potential test that could fulfil these requirements, it can also test for antibiotic resistance and other bacterial infections in patients’ blood samples in parallel.

A team led by Joseph Ndieyira at the London Centre for Nanotechnology has designed nano-scaled cantilever infection sensors – each of width less than that of a human hair. The cantilever surface is covered by different target molecule receptors. Think of these receptors as ‘locks’ and the Antibiotic molecules, HIV surface proteins or bacterium as ‘keys’. When the ‘keys’ are present in a patients’ blood sample, they interact with the ‘locks’, and the cantilevers bend down in different degrees. This bending tells us which HIV or bacterial infection the patient is suffering from.

Smaller and smarter, the test would be a great asset to health workers conducting large-scale HIV infection screening, particularly in remote areas. This also enables clinicians to tailor specific antibiotic treatment for individual patients, potentially helping to slow the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Other images: Chirp.io, London Centre For Nanotechnology 

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