Lab News

A strike against deadly allergies   (link)

Waterloo Region Record

Sabrina Shannon was 13 years old when she ate her last meal in the cafeteria of Bishop Smith Catholic High School in Pembroke, Ontario.

Sabrina had a life-threatening allergy to soy, peanuts and dairy. She carried medication and was careful to ask questions before eating anything not made at home. She had tried the French fries served in the school cafeteria before with no problems.

But this time, the tongs used to serve the fries had also touched poutine, which includes cheese curds with the fries. That mistake had dreadful consequences. Sabrina started wheezing in class after lunch. Teachers rushed to help her, but it was too late. She collapsed and went into cardiac arrest before the ambulance arrived. She died the following day: Sept. 30, 2003.

Her iconic, tragic story inspired "Sabrina's Law," a legal requirement that school staff in Ontario be trained in delivering medication to people with life-threatening allergies. It also serves as a stark reminder of the perilous, precarious existence of thousands of Canadians who have deadly allergies. One moment of inattention or misunderstanding can cost a life.

If only Sabrina, and the dozens of Canadians who have died since as a result of food allergies, had lived to hear the news of a wonderful new device being developed at University of Guelph.

Suresh Neethirajan and associates at the BioNano lab have created a tool that uses nanotechnology to detect minute amounts of allergens in food. This device, about the size of a cell phone, can be used by an inspector at a processing plant or a customer at a restaurant. A small sample of the food is mixed with water and injected into a silicon-based plate. The plate is treated to detect allergens like peanuts and gluten in very low concentrations — think of a couple of drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Instead of an analysis done in a lab that takes two or three days, this invention requires just two or three minutes for the results to be sent to a smartphone app. 

In a disturbing trend that scientists don't quite understand, medical emergencies involving life-threatening allergies have increased dramatically over the years. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Statistics, the number of emergency room visits for this situation was 6,035 in 2013-14 in Ontario and Alberta. That's more than double what it was seven years earlier. Most people survive, but about a dozen times a year across the country, they die. We owe a vote of thanks to Neethirajan and colleagues for their work ensuring that the odds for these uniquely vulnerable people will soon be far better.

Big idea, small package. Nanotechnology detects food allergens


New allergen detector from the University of Guelph could help save lives 

The Record Newspaper Magazine News (link

CTV Kitchener TV Interview (link)  (Video File download)


Photo Credit: University of Guelph - June 29, 2016

You can’t buy one yet, but University of Guelph researchers have come up with a device that can tell you if potentially dangerous food allergens are in the food you’re about to eat.

The tool, developed by researchers at the U of G’s BioNano Laboratory, is a portable apparatus that can identify allergens such as peanuts or gluten. The new wallet-sized detector allows for on-location testing and could expedite allergen reporting and reduce the number of allergic reactions through more timely results, a news release said.

The process requires a small amount of the suspected food to be liquefied in a suspension. A filter syringe is then used to inject it into a silicon-based plate developed by the researchers.

“As the sample passes through tiny tubes of the microfluidic chip, it travels through a beam of light from a LED source that is monitored by a specialized camera,” BioNano Lab director Suresh Neethirajan said in the release.

“The allergen glows and the camera is able to decipher a result in just 10 minutes. We also are developing a new app that will allow us to have results almost immediately. Typically, it would take two to three days to hear from a lab, but now, we should be able to know for certain in two to three minutes.”

In addition, since the technology uses microfluidics and nano-equipment, it requires a very small sample, the release said.

“We’re bringing down the volume of the reagents involved, making this a more environmentally friendly way of testing allergens,” BioNano research engineer Xuan Weng said in the release.

With one in 10 people in the world suffering from a food allergy, the researchers see a market for the device, for which they have already filed a patent, though it will not be available on the market for a couple of years.

“This device could be used by manufacturers, food safety inspectors, restaurant owners and servers, customers, or any one concerned about food safety,” said Neethirajan.

“We’re also working on making the device capable of detecting other allergens, such as shellfish. What we’re doing is going from being reactive with allergies to actually preventing them. This device could transform the future of identifying hazardous food components.


Lucas Penny - Bionanolab mentee and a collaborating high school student working with Steven Panesar has won multiple awards this past May 2016.


Lucas Penny, Grimsby Sec. School, grade 11 student won a gold medal at the Canada Wide Science Fair and Canada’s most prestigious innovation award from the Ernest C. Manning Innovation Awards. Lucas will be honoured at the Foundation’s Awards Gala this Oct. and receives $7,500 for his innovative science fair project which is a low-cost system for detecting breast cancer in the early stages.


Early breast cancer detection earns our major student award!

Lucas Penny, 17, Grade 11 student at Grimsby Secondary School, has been actively involved with science most of his life and this year focused on finding a successful, low-cost system for detecting breast cancer in its early stages. For those efforts he earned a $7,500 Young Canadian Innovator Award and a trip to our National Awards Gala this October in Halifax where he will be honoured.

This Gold-medal study conducted at the BioNanoLab of the University of Guelph under the supervision of Steven Panesar and Professor Suresh Neethirajan, used a profile of miRNA, which are pieces of specialized genetic material used in regulating gene expression, characteristic to breast cancer, for earlier detection of the onset of breast cancer. Penny found that these miRNAs could be found in saliva providing an easy, non-invasive way of obtaining the miRNAs and testing for the onset of breast cancer in different patients. To do this, Penny devised a way to make use of quantum dots (normally used in TVs to produce different colours), which are particles that are one-millionth of a centimeter big that produce light when activated. Penny combined these quantum dots with their own miRNAs. Furthermore, he developed a piece of genetic material that acts as an infrastructure for miRNAs to interact with, but on its own, will produce a certain coloured light that is able to be detected. However, only when a specific miRNA from the breast cancer profile is present, will the cancer-specific miRNA, as well as the quantum dot bind to the infrastructure and activate the quantum dot to produce a different coloured light that is able to be detected, indicating the presence of cancer.

In addition to creating the required miRNAs and specialized quantum dots, Penny created a device that will combine the saliva of the patient in question with the quantum dots and infrastructure genetic material, which will mix and produce either the light from the infrastructure indicating the absence of cancer, or will emit light from the quantum dot indicating the presence of cancer.

The method, in conjunction with the device Penny created, will be able to detect changes in the range of one quadrillionth of a gram to one billionth of a gram of miRNA, which will determine if a patient has early signs of cancer. This model that Penny developed, with its extreme sensitivity, will also be very cheap, being approximately five dollars per test. It can be very quick, taking less than 10 minutes to return results and with further miRNA profile characterization of other cancers or diseases, it may be possible to have a non-invasive, inexpensive quick and easy test for early onset of various diseases.







Congratulations to Mr. Steven Panesar for successfully defending his master's project. Steven is moving to California for continuing PhD studies.

Ultra-Sensitive Detection of Breast Cancer Biomarkers Using Time-Resolved FRET and Quantum-Dots

Advisor: Dr. Suresh Neethirajan

Committee Member: Dr. Simon Yang


Breast cancer is defined as a malignant neoplasm that occurs at or around the breast issue area. This disease affected 25,000 women last year in Canada and claimed the lives of 5,000 women. These numbers represent 26% and 14% of all new breast cancer and deaths, respectively, for Canadian women in 2015. These numbers do not tell us the amount of lives that were affected due to the disease, which can go into the hundred thousands. Here we develop a multiplexed microfluidics chip that accurately detects miR-195 and let-7a in human serum samples. MicroRNAs (miRNA) are small noncoding messenger RNA that are derived from messenger RNA. These small robust RNAs are looked at as precursors to many different diseases including breast cancer. Both miR-195 and let-7a have been shown to increases in concentration in human serum samples during cancer and decrease in concentration within tumor cells during cancer. To effectively measure miRNA concentration in blood with minimally invasive techniques, the developed microfluidics chip detects the miRNA levels from human blood using time resolved-förster resonance energy transfer. The detection mechanism uses a DNA zipper that binds the miRNA with an 8 base pair (bp) DNA supporter sequence and a complementary DNA sequence. When the supporter, complementary and miRNA sequences bind together a terbium-cryptate molecule excites a quantum-dot (710 nm for let-7a and 655 nm for miR- 195) and the fluorescence is measured. Detection limits of the miRNAs are 10 picomolar, with a dynamic range of 10 nM to 0.1 nM when measured with microfluidics chips


BioNano Group celebrating Steven's successful Defense at the Grad Lounge Restaurant at the UofG Campus on May 23, 2016.  L to R - Suresh, Steven, Kristina, Xuan, Cynthya, Ryan. Abdul - Photographer.

L to R - Suresh, Steven, Kristina, Xuan, Cynthya, Ryan and Abdul - May 23, 2016 @ Grad Lounge Bar

Contact Us

Bionanotechnology Laboratory
Suresh Neethirajan

School of Engineering
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario
Canada N1G 2W1

Room 3513 - Richards Building
50 Stone Road East

Lab: THRN 2133 BioNano Lab

Phone: (519) 824-4120 Ext 53922
Fax: (519) 836-0227


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