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Q&A with Jia-Sheng Wang

By Emily Urban

University of Georgia, Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab

Background

Dr. Jia-Sheng Wang is a UGA Athletic Association Professor in Public Health, and Department Head at the University of Georgia in the Department of Environmental Health Science. He is currently leading the "Mycotoxin Detection in Dried Blood" project supported by the Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab, which support urgent needs in nutritional and intervention studies in Asia and Africa.

PMIL: Your research with PMIL is working with the detection of mycotoxins in dried spotted blood (DBS) samples. How did you get started on this project?

Dr. Wang: "Aflatoxins are a big problem in Africa, Asia, and in other parts of the developing world. Aflatoxins are carcinogens, increasing the chances of liver cancer, and they are also strong immune suppressants. Higher aflatoxin exposure quickens the progression of a HIV positive individual to the stage of an AIDS patient, which makes aflatoxins particularly concerning in regions with high HIV rates. Also, aflatoxins are said to contribute to child stunting.

The use of the DBS technique was first introduced in the 1960s in the field of genetic research. Samples were taken from infants right after birth to detect genetic disorders, and since then, the technique has continued to be developed to test for the presence of mycotoxins in the blood, as well as even pesticides and heavy metals.

There is a need for a fast, effective way to test aflatoxin exposure levels in humans, and the DBS technique has strong potential."

PMIL: You have been making a lot of progress with your research in the past two years. At what stage is this project now?

Dr. Wang: "We began this project two years ago. Last year was at the development stage, which worked on evaluating the DBS technique. We needed to determine the most accurate and efficient way to detect mycotoxins in the dried blood samples. We also tested four types of commercially available DBS cards to identify which card was best for our work.

This year is the validation stage of the study, where we have taken DBS samples from Kenya, Malawi, Nepal, and Uganda to validate accuracy, precision, and sensitivity of our methods. Right now we are working to automate the process, as we sometimes receive hundreds of DBS cards at one time and need to reduce the amount of time and labor needed to process the results.

The application stage of this project will begin next year, with collaborations in Uganda and Nepal, in collaboration with the Nutrition Innovation Lab located at Tufts University. Both countries have particularly alarming aflatoxin exposure levels. The practical application of this technique will be a tool to help researchers determine the toxin levels of individuals, especially children, at these project sites to help determine the most appropriate interventions to lower aflatoxin consumption."

PMIL: Do you see this dried spotted blood technique as an ideal method of aflatoxin testing?

Dr. Wang: "This method provides valuable information to guide aflatoxin interventions. In the past, larger volumes of blood were taken for samples, and shipping and handling were much more burdensome. The DBS method is ideal, because it uses smaller blood volumes, is less invasive, and is easier to store and ship. It also reduces the risk of blood borne pathogens, such as HIV, because the sample is dried on the card."

PMIL: In the upcoming stage, do you foresee any challenges?

Dr. Wang: "Now that we are beginning to apply these techniques in the field, the need for professionals that know how to take these samples is needed. Training is a big part of this. In addition, funding questions to cover costs to run these samples in our labs here in the US is a challenge for those wanting to take dried blood samples at their project sites."

PMIL: What type of impact could this technology have in our target countries?

Dr. Wang: "We are getting to the point now in the project that we can begin using these techniques in the field. DBS allows us take measurements of aflatoxin biomarker levels in certain regions in a safe, accurate, and efficient way. With this capability, we are able to identify villages and regions with dangerous human aflatoxicosis levels and call for needed interventions by governments and other entities.

This technology meets urgent needs in many developing countries and helps to fill research gaps. For example, the majority of the world is using our serum technique now, despite the difficulties. The DBS method would be much easier."

PMIL would like to thank Dr. Wang for his continued collaborations and wish him all the success as he and his lab team enter the final stages of this project.

Published October 27, 2015