Video: Northwestern’s scientist uses baker’s yeast to create a laboratory in a bottle

By Angela Barnes

A compact, affordable device to diagnose how well your kidneys function is under development at Northwestern University.

Adebola Adeniran, a third year Ph.D. candidate in the department of Chemical and Biological Engineering is creating this laboratory in a bottle using yeast, the simple ingredient we usually knead into bread dough. This yeast will help detect chronic kidney disease, especially in underdeveloped areas with limited medical facilities.

Adeniran said she hopes people eventually could use the device themselves.

Welcome to the world of synthetic biology.

“The overall goal of synthetic biology is to take biological organisms that traditionally do one thing in nature and force them to do things that we want them to,” said Adeniran. “For example, for my project I’m trying to turn yeast into a diagnostic device.”

How does it work?

Adeniran says she and her research team are turning yeast cells, which are living organisms, into a medical diagnostic tool by forcing them to detect molecules  that will indicate if a person has kidney disease.

“My colleagues and I are hijacking these sensory pathways to instead detect biomarkers for different diseases,” she said.

“Because we know how yeast responds when they detect molecules in their environment,” said Adeniran. “We can then have the yeast change colors when they’ve detected a molecule that can tell you if you have a disease or not.”

But why are these yeast cells so important?  According to Adeniran, the yeast cells have receptors (sensors) that can detect cystatin (protein) found in the urine. Cystatin levels are an indication of how well the kidneys are functioning.

Yeast cells in a bottle fluoresce when detecting too much protein. (Angela Barnes/Medill)

“So the worse your kidneys get, the more cystatin accumulates in your blood and urine,” Adeniran said. “Yeast cells that change color, we know are detecting cystatin.”

In other words, when the yeast cell is detecting too much protein the cell fluoresces and changes from its normal brown color to a green color.

Normal kidney function

 Normal kidneys act like a filter. They remove toxins, excess fluid and proteins, such as cystatin, from the body. Too much protein indicates kidney failure. When there’s a build-up of these proteins in the kidneys it may cause weakness, shortness of breath, lethargy and confusion, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

If this scientific language sounds a bit convoluted—it is. But according to the National Kidney Foundation, one in three American adults are at risk for having kidney disease. The risk is even higher for people in underdeveloped countries. In addition, Adeniran says that kidney failure may lead to other health problems.

“Chronic kidney failure is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular failure,” said Adeniran. “It’s one of the leading causes of death in resource-poor areas.”

Early beginnings

Growing up in Maryland, Adeniran knew she wanted to one day help provide access to affordable health care to those in need. While watching a televised fundraiser at 8 years old, Adeniran watched children in grave desolation, stricken with poverty and health challenges.

“I was actually seeing kids my age and I couldn’t understand why they were sick or why they didn’t have access to health care,” Adeniran said. “So that always stuck with me. I always wanted to work in health care in some aspect.”

Adeniran comes from a family of health care professionals: her older sister is a bioengineer who works with stem cells, one cousin is a doctor and another is a pharmacist.

Long-term goal

The 26-year-old scientist is passionate about the yeast diagnostic device, which she hopes will give people the power to monitor their kidney functions over time. The monitoring would give them a good indication of their overall health, she said. The goal would be to reduce the number of patients suffering from kidney disease.

“Chronic kidney disease affects about 10 percent of the population in developed countries and even more in resource-poor countries,” Adeniran added.

Jennifer Greene, a third-year student in the Ph.D. Chemical and Biological Engineering program, said Adeniran’s yeast project would help doctors detect diseases in their patients.

Greene said it’s not just about discovery, but a broader goal for global health.

“I think it’s really cool,” Greene said. “She has a long-term goal of making an affordable diagnostic out of yeast to use as a resource in poor areas.”

“The idea is that if you build the device cheaply enough people could either monitor their kidney health at home so they can take the test every one or two weeks and it won’t be an expensive test,” Adeniran added.

Although the technology is still in the early stages, Adeniran ultimately wants her product to allow people to take a role and ownership in their own health care. She hopes to have the project completed by her expected graduation date in May 2017.

“I think I’ll be able to get a yeast cell that can detect the biomarker before I graduate,” she said. “ I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to build the prototype by then.”

Adeniran says after graduation she will focus more on a prototype. “My colleagues and I do want to start a startup company so we can commercialize this device and get it into the field.”

Photo at top: Northwestern Ph.D. student Adebola Adeniran uses yeast in a bottle to detect kidney disease. (Angela Barnes/Medill)