Emory scientist Khalid Salaita earns top Merck prize for viral sensing technology

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Khalid Salaita, PhD

Dr. Khalid Salaita, Samuel Chandler Dobbs professor of chemistry at Emory University, is the 2023 recipient of the Merck Future Insight Prize. The prestigious award is given to a researcher whose work currently lays the foundation for a “dream product” that is important for the future survival of humanity.

The 2023 topic is the pandemic early alert system, and Salaita’s work on Rolosense, a viral sensing technology, has earned him the prize – which also includes a €500,000 research award.

“It’s an arms race between us and pathogens, and being able to detect any pathogen in real time is going to be one part of winning the race, if you will,” said Salaita, commenting on Rolosense’s role as a pandemic early alert system.

Rolosense is the first rolling DNA motor, and it’s 1,000 times faster than any other synthetic DNA motor. And it’s efficient: In terms of early pandemic alert, it can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in artificial saliva and exhaled breath condensate with a sensitivity of 1000 copies/mL. Rolosense is so fast that a simple an iPhone camera can capture its movement through video. But its potential application as a rapid, low-cost, and effective screening reaches far beyond COVID-19.

“The dream product we pitched is a way to create passive monitoring systems to detect aerosolized virus particles,” said Salaita. “Not unlike a smoke detector, what we would create is a virus alert system to monitor the atmosphere, detect viruses, and when there’s a hit, identify the type of pathogen and automatically relay that information – both the GPS coordinates and the time – to a central hub to aid in surveillance and monitoring.”

In terms of the no-strings-attached funding, Salaita plans to use the award to push the project forward through commercialization and broadening its use to detect more viruses than COVID-19.

OTT recognized Rolosense as Innovation of the Year in its 2015 Annual Celebration. “I think it’s important to give recognition to OTT for being early in recognizing the potential of this idea. Because it’s a crazy idea,” said Salaita.

Associate VP for Research and OTT Executive Director Todd Sherer, PhD, commented, “Early pandemic alerts will be critical for mitigating future public health crises. Dr. Salaita is not only a great partner to OTT, but also an incredible scientist whose work can and does make an impact. This award is very well deserved.”

“The whole lab and I are super excited about this award. At the end of the day, we’re scientists in the College of Arts and Science doing fundamental, basic research about how the world works. For someone to say, ‘The stuff you’re doing in the lab is actually very meaningful and impactful, and we see a way for it to make the world a better place in the future,’ it’s the biggest accolade you could ever hear.”

View the original press release