Focusing on R&D
In 2016 award-winning researcher Cynthia Fast PH.D arrived at APOPO to help the organization focus on improving its rat detection technology through research and development.
Dr. Fast holds a Ph.D. and Master's degree in Psychology specializing in Learning and Behavior and Behavioral Neuroscience from UCLA and investigated the neurobiology of olfactory learning and perception in rodents as a post-doctoral scholar.
As well as previous awards in her field, Dr. Fast recently awarded the New York Academy of Sciences James McKeen Cattell award for her work. She has more than ten years of experience conducting behavioral research examining learning and memory and underlying neural mechanisms with a variety of species including rats, mice, pigeons, and hermit crabs. To broaden APOPO's scientific network and expert perspective on the diverse topics addressed by APOPO's rat detection technology, Dr. Fast installed an R&D advisory committee of respected scientists from around the world representing a diverse range of skills and expertise. APOPO is able to consult with these experts on specific matters ranging from animal scent detection and rodent olfaction to chemical composition of volatile organic compounds which the rats smell when detecting target substances.
Dr. Fast is also building a strong research team at our R&D headquarters in Tanzania, comprised of highly skilled students, researchers, and post-doctoral scholars who are conducting various behavioral studies aimed at informing and optimizing detection rat training techniques through a better understanding of the rats' themselves, including how they learn about odors they smell in the world.
Dr. Fast's efforts to build APOPO's R&D sector maintains our productive partnerships with the University of Antwerp, Sokoine University of Agriculture, Western Michigan University, Waikato University, and the Max Planck Institute while broadening our scientific affiliations to include other global research partners.
CURRENT BEHAVIORAL R&D PROJECTS
Scent detection fundamentals:
Using a custom engineered, partially automated apparatus, the R&D team is investigating the variables that influence training success and operational performance. Variables under investigation include the frequency target odors are presented to rats relative to non-target odors; the presence of additional odors that can mask the target if not properly controlled; the optimal timing of training and evaluation sessions (e.g., night versus day) and duration of proper indication responses; food reward (reinforcement) size, rate, and quality; target and non-target odor concentrations; as well as different behavioral response metrics and factors that influence how the rats generalize from training odors to novel odors experienced in operations. Additionally, the R&D team is exploring alternative training paradigms that could prove beneficial in new scent detection applications such as rapid retraining on new odor targets, matching-to-sample, and methods to further bolster the rats' already keen sense of smell, as well as the role nutrition may play in rat scent detection performance. . Insights from this research will not only inform universal scientific learning theories and provide a greater understanding of the olfactory abilities of the African giant pouched rat, but will also be directly applied to optimize training and operational protocols of APOPO's HeroRATs.
This project examines different ways that a rat can 'indicate' the presence of a target scent, such as pulling a collar-switch or pressing a lever. The aim is to reduce ambiguity of the traditional scratching or 'nose-hold' responses, as well as understand if the rats themselves prefer another method (and therefore hit more 'positive' indications). Alternative response methods may also provide more sensitive measures related to the rat's "certainty" that a target odor is present, rather than the binary "yes" or "no" response currently utilized in scent detection operations.
Combatting wildlife trafficking:
As a proof-of-concept, this project examines the rats' abilities to detect the smell of illegally smuggled and endangered flora and fauna species, such as pangolins or hardwoods. Additionally, it addresses the logistical challenges of how to apply detection rat applications to search for illegally trafficked species in goods containers at busy shipping ports.
Detection of other diseases or pathogens:
In addition to TB-detection from human sputum samples, we are investigating to what extent our rats can be trained to detect TB in other sample medium (e.g., urine or saliva) as well as detection of other harmful diseases, infections, or pathogens from non-invasive biosamples.
Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) study:
Research is underway examining what the TB detection rats actually smell within the suspect human sputum samples. The goal is to isolate the TB-specific compounds in order to standardize training methods and dramatically enhance the detection rats' performance. Results from this project may also inform development of alternative scent detection technologies such as e-noses.
Active Case Finding: Prison study:
This project examines the cost-effectiveness of screening up to 15,000 prisoners a year. Prisons are considered high-risk, but low-prevelance 'incubators' of TB and therefore testing in prisons could fight TB at the source. However, the logistics of travelling to prisons, identifying suspect patients, transporting samples for testing, and returning results to prisons need to be carefully assessed in addition to the rat's ability to reliably detect suspect infections in an active case finding scenario.
"Driving APOPO's position as a leading global scent detection research and development organization is our commitment to fundamental research that validates our operational performance and empirically informs our protocols, techniques, and operations. It is this core research that makes it possible for APOPO's scent detection rats to save lives."
Dr Cynthia Fast Ph.D.