Who are you?
I’m Ashleigh Theberge, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Washington, as well as adjunct associate professor in the Department of Urology. I am a co-PI of the Bioanalytical Chemistry for Medicine and the Environment—BCME—lab, where we develop new technologies to better understand general biological processes that are important for both human health and the environment.
What are you working on?
My lab is focused on creating new technologies for diagnostics, including patient-centric diagnostics like the CandyCollect that’s been supported by the Washington Research Foundation. We also develop new tools to be able to collect blood and other specimens longitudinally: so, multiple samples collected over time, such as our homeRNA technology. Lately we’ve really gotten into running our own decentralized clinical studies within the lab to look at biological questions that couldn’t be answered with conventional human-subjects research, where you bring a person in one or two times to a brick-and-mortar study site. Other projects of the lab include developing an at-home air sampling device and several projects around tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, and being able to study cell signaling in microfluidic or 3D tissue models in vitro.
Our CandyCollect device, which is a lollipop-inspired open fluidic device for capturing saliva from both children and adults, fits on the side of diagnosis and enables early disease detection in what we call a patient-centric way. We’re really putting the end user of our tool first and thinking about something that’s going to be a pleasant experience to collect a saliva sample. The CandyCollect device could also help with disease management throughout a patient’s treatment, or to help researchers identify new biomarkers for diseases. We are currently focused on group A strep, the bacteria that causes strep throat.
Looking at our homeRNA technology, we’ve executed clinical studies to investigate various phases of respiratory infection, including the pre-symptomatic phase of infection which has historically been very challenging to capture. We run nationwide studies where we can recruit people over social media and include much more diverse populations in our studies than would be possible for a traditional single-site clinical study. We’ve also been able to tackle questions like, “How does wildfire smoke exposure affect gene expression?” that wouldn’t be possible with traditional clinical study designs.
For our in-lab tools, we’ve made significant advances in many areas within urology and nephrology with our culture devices.
Now we’re expanding into other disease areas such as muscular dystrophy. It’s exciting to see the in-lab work really adding to the body of knowledge on diseases, as well as normal cell-cell communication in the absence of disease.
Why is this research important?
Overarchingly from my lab, we want to understand the basic mechanisms underlying disease so that we can help in developing better tools for disease management, which goes all the way from diagnosis through actually monitoring progression of disease and response to therapies. Unless we can understand the molecular mechanisms underlying a disease in great detail, it’s hard for drug developers or physicians to apply therapies to help people.
Interview by Sophia Jannetty
WRF supported Dr. Theberge’s research with technology commercialization grants totaling $394,950 between 2020-2023.