How this biomedical engineer is taking diagnostic tools out of clinical settings

29 Jun 2023

Dr Tara Dalton. Image: Paul Corey Photography

For Dr Tara Dalton, the best kind of research reminds us that ‘seemingly impossible things are eminently possible’.

Dr Tara Dalton is propelled by a desire to make the latest scientific knowledge and insights accessible to as many people as quickly as possible. “When I read about scientific breakthroughs, my first thought is always, ‘How can a solution be engineered so that the breakthrough can be applied anywhere?’”, she says.

“I’m so passionate and eager to make breakthrough science available to everyone. That’s what drives my research.”

Dalton works in the Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Limerick (UL). She obtained degrees in aeronautical engineering from UL before turning her attention to biomedical engineering as a postdoctoral researcher.

Though she is quick to point out that she has never lost her love of aeronautics. “I still love flight and I’m absolutely in awe of jet-engine technology.” For Dalton, this technology serves as a “touchstone”, reminding her that “seemingly impossible things are eminently possible”.

However, biomedical engineering suited her interest in applying her research for practical purposes. She also sees it as a field that has great potential for innovation and collaboration.

“There’s a requirement for input from an array of different disciplines in the development of technology,” she says.

“I find that the process of innovation, in which the expertise and experiences of an interdisciplinary team turn a concept into usable technology, is what makes biomedical engineering so exciting.”

The foundations of a STEM career

Dalton’s interest in science began at a young age. She credits her father with inspiring her to pursue a career in STEM. He had studied physics and applied maths in university. Dalton remembers her father taking the time to teach her these subjects, even when she was very young. This gave her “the foundation for studying STEM subjects in school”, she says.

“His encouragement was vitally important in that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without it.”

As assistant director of the Stokes Research Institute, Dalton manages research contracts, is engaged in finding new sources of funding, supervises postgraduate students and lecturers in thermofluidics (the study of thermodynamics, heat transfer and fluids).

The primary focus of Dalton’s current research is on the development of medical diagnostic systems for genetic analysis. She is the CEO of a UL spin-out company, Altratech.

Putting the research into practice

Altratech has developed a handheld device which can be used to test for various diseases ranging from flu and Covid-19 to dengue fever and HIV in a non-clinical setting. “The pandemic exposed the need to take diagnostic tools out of clinical settings and into the community,” says Dalton. “Altratech is responding to that need.”

The device works with a sample of saliva or blood. A synthetic molecule can capture the virus, if present, from the sample and “a very sensitive silicon chip” can detect the presence and quantity of the virus. “It sounds simple,” says Dalton, “but it is a complex assay [medical test] embodied in a handheld cartridge”.

Dalton describes the development of the device as “challenging”.

“We have new chemistry and new molecular biology, and all this needs to be engineered into something that has the simplicity of an antigen test. This level of innovation takes time which can, at times, be frustrating.”

The hard work and frustration will pay off for Dalton when Altratech’s technology becomes “the go-to molecular diagnostic assay for any diagnostics or pharma company wishing to bring their test out of the laboratory and directly to the patient”.

As for the future of biomedical engineering, Dalton is excited about recent breakthroughs in immunotherapies, especially for cancer treatments. “The immune system is a powerful thing and we’re only beginning to really understand it”, Dalton explains.

“We’ve seen all sorts of advances – scientists have begun using the immune system to attack tumours for example – but they are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more coming down the track.”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic