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J. Paul Robinson

Professor of Immunopharmacology
Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Director, Purdue University Cytometry Laboratories

Advancing tools to quickly detect food-borne pathogens

In his quest for research with real-life applications, J. Paul Robinson's research activities have taken him to all corners of the world, even to the summit of Mount Everest in May 2009, an ascent that was tied to an effort to raise money for AIDS detection.

Now he is turning his attention to developing a technology with the potential to more quickly identify food-borne pathogens. The technology's application could aid U.S. homeland security officials and other personnel in responding to a bioterrorist attack or other emergencies.

"They say an image may be worth 1,000 words," says Robinson, who holds an endowed chair in veterinary medicine and biomedical engineering. "Through this technology, an image that captures the pathogenic cellular fingerprint of a potential act of bioterrorism could be the difference between 1,000 lives saved or lost."

The technology relies on a laser-based instrument that a Purdue team designed and developed. It works by creating a signature of each organism isolated from patients, where a laser interrogates bacterial colonies and collects unique scatter fingerprint patterns that instantly identify each and every colony on a plate. The signatures are then sent to a national biosecurity database network, which links major hospitals and other healthcare facilities around the country to be compared with other signatures.

The National Institutes of Health's National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases has provided $1.3 million in funding for the initiative. The project is supporting the research of more than 15 scientists, engineers, staff and students at Purdue.

"As is the case with any potential bioterrorist attack, time is crucial for detecting whether something is amiss," Robinson says. "This is a tool that emergency responders and healthcare facilities could use to head off a threat early and to help save lives."

The technology builds on existing technology developed by former Purdue mechanical engineering professor and school head E. Dan Hirleman to identify contaminants in integrated-circuitry production. When combined with research originally funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Food Safety, Purdue food sciences professor Arun Bhunia was able to demonstrate the technology's application in identifying food-borne pathogens.

Teamwork, Robinson says, has been critical to the success of Purdue research that requires close interaction and collaboration with physicians, technicians, emergency personnel and law enforcement agents who are on the front lines in the effort to advance food security.

"Today, scientists and engineers must be translational if we are going to be relevant and have the impact necessary to address the global challenges we face. That's what is so exciting about this research and its related technology," says Robinson, who made the 29,029-foot climb to the top of Mount Everest to raise money for Cytometry for Life, a not-for-profit organization founded at Purdue to develop reliable, low-cost diagnostic tools to facilitate treatment for AIDS victims across sub-Saharan Africa.

"What good am I as a researcher if I'm not able to go beyond the fundamental science to apply these ideas for making a difference, helping people and possibly saving lives?"

A nurturing place: Robinson furnished his office in Discovery Park with antiques. Its large window affords a view of a fountain and walkways. The location, he says, inspires some of his best thinking. “It is beautiful and peaceful, yet an environment that is always bustling with people. It reminds me of the opportunities we have for discovery.”

Driven to help people: Doing things that have an impact on people drives Robinson’s work. “I used to want to write another paper or book or something tangible,” he says, “but as I get older and hopefully wiser, my goals are to do things that directly impact the lives of people who need help the most — I am thinking about those in countries that don't have the resources we have, so I want to develop things that can change their lives.”

Pride in students: Some of this researcher’s proudest moments come from students. “I used to think it was when I got a degree or similar, or when I published a book,” he says, “but my proudest moments now come when I get the opportunity to talk to students about being achievers and meeting big challenges. Students always make you feel the proudest. They are perhaps more appreciative than anyone else.”

A memorable mentor: Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, an Australian who was the 1960 Nobel Prize winner in immunology, left an impression on Robinson. “I met him as a graduate student and I never forgot many of his wonderful sayings,” he recalls. “One was that if you were not capable of writing a manuscript before you did the research, you did not fully understand the goals of your research. Of course, things don't always work out the way you plan, but then you need to rethink your ideas. Interestingly, virtually every paper that Burnet published was hand written.”

By Phillip Fiorini
Photos by: Andrew Hancock