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17-year-old makes color changing sutures that detect infection

All over the world, infections at the site of surgical incisions are a major cause of new illnesses, extended hospital stays and even death. In the U.S. alone, these infections cost more than $3 billion annually, with even worse statistics in developing countries. Stephanie Sy reports on one 17-year-old Iowa scientist who's working on a more affordable way to detect these infections early.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    All over the world, infections in the place where surgical incisions are made are a major cause of new illnesses, extended hospital stays, and even death.

    In the U.S. alone, these infections cost more than $3 billion annually. But in developing countries, those statistics are much worse.

    Stephanie Sy reports on one scientist who's working on a more affordable way to detect these infections early.

    It's the latest in our series Breakthroughs on the Leading Edge of science.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    The colorful one here is Prince.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For the past year-and-a-half, Dasia Taylor has been developing a unique invention to detect infections after someone's had surgery.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    I came up with color-changing stitches that provide early detection for infections, with the specific focus on surgical site infections in developing countries, because those can be very deadly if they're found too late.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How does it work?

  • Dasia Taylor:

    When you have an infection, there's chemical imbalances going on, and my stitches pick up those chemical imbalances, and then they change color because of what's going on all, all the science stuff.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The stitches change color?

  • Dasia Taylor:

    The stitches change color.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    She can't get too specific because of a pending patent application, but Taylor says she uses sutures dyed with beet juice to make the magic happen.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    Beets are natural indicators. So, a natural indicator is just a baseline term for a substance that changes color when the pH changes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Healthy skin is naturally acidic, but if a surgical site gets infected, that acidity decreases. When that change happens, Taylor's sutures go from a bright red to a grayish-purple color.

    By the way, Taylor is only 17.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    Dasia T. Taylor.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And she just graduated high school in June. Her path to these color-changing sutures began junior year in a chemistry honors class.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    This is the room. This was where it all started.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    After a suggestion from Taylor's teacher, Carolyn Walling.

  • Carolyn Walling:

    She sat in the front row the very first day.

    And when I brought up, would anyone like to do a science fair project, she raised her hand immediately, and she stayed after school. And she said, let's talk about this.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    I read an article about how these scientists created these stitches that involved this really fancy technology that I perceived to be inequitable to those that would actually be able to need this technology.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In low- and middle-income countries, 8 percent to 30 percent of procedures result in surgical site infections. But so-called smart stitches require smart devices, which are expensive.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    I said, hey, I can do it better. I can do it more equitable.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Issues of equity are personal for Taylor. She and her mother, LaDonna, live in the suburbs of Iowa City, a predominantly white area.

    And they have experienced their share of discrimination. Taylor says her previous school even tried to keep her from joining a science competition team. The lack of representation was even more apparent at her first science fair.

  • Carolyn Walling:

    She looked around and she said: "I am the only Black person in this room."

    And that was that was like one of those things where maybe you know it, but you don't really notice it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You have never experienced the world that way, obviously.

  • Carolyn Walling:

    Yes.

    Yes. And she looked at me, and she said: "Well, I'm going to win this thing."

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And she did.

  • Carolyn Walling:

    And she did.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dasia helped open her teacher's eyes to racial discrimination.

    And from creating Black history bulletin boards in her elementary school to co-chairing her school district's Equity Advisory Committee, Dasia's been on a mission to educate those around her. She sees her invention as another tool in that mission.

    So, what did it feel like when you saw that this worked?

  • Dasia Taylor:

    Yes, I was like, oh, my gosh, I did science. Like…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Carolyn Walling:

    She'd be in my room constantly. It was probably every Friday after school she was in here cutting up beets and boiling beets.

    It was a good probably four to five months that she was working on it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And it paid off.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    My project is a novel suture additive.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    This year, she was named a finalist in the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search, a national science competition for pre-college students.

    Past finalists include Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur fellows.

  • Ellen DeGeneres:

    From Iowa City, Iowa, please welcome 17-year-old Dasia Taylor.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Taylor's work even landed her on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," where the host declared her the winner of the show's science fair, which, of course, is not really a thing.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    That's a gorgeous trophy.

  • Ellen DeGeneres:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    And all I had to do was come here.

  • Ellen DeGeneres:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Taylor's next big step, though, is college. In the fall, she heads to the University of Iowa.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    I will actually be majoring in political science, so, really, social sciences and getting in tune with that and creating this equitable plan on a greater scale.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And she's not done with her infection-detecting sutures yet. Taylor says she won't stop until the people who need the stitches have them.

    What are you pinpointing as the challenge you're currently focused on?

  • Dasia Taylor:

    So, right now, it's just a pure focus of making this suture commercially viable, so that everything can go smooth when everything goes to market and these stitches actually get to those developing countries.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There are still barriers to it being used in the real world, safe to say.

  • Carolyn Walling:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But do you consider it a success either way?

  • Carolyn Walling:

    Yes, because it works. It does detect pH. It does change colors where it needs to change colors. There are just some details that need to be worked out, but they're not insurmountable.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    While many in the medical community have praised the invention, there is a technical obstacle, sterilizing the sutures.

    But she has already overcome a major hurdle, helping others that look like her believe they can find success in science, too.

  • Dasia Taylor:

    Knowing that I have inspired people all over the world is the real prize to me. That's the real recognition that, hey, I'm doing good in the world, and this isn't just for me. This project, this research is quite literally outside of myself.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Iowa City, Iowa.

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