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Brad Petersen
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Biosensor technology being used for research across campus

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By Bridget Maiellaro, ECE Illinois
March 24, 2008

  • Bio-molecular Interaction Detection, used to detect the binding between two molecules or between one molecule and a cell, is used in several projects.
  • Leo Chan and Sherine George are working with Speech and Hearing Science researchers to study how certain chemicals interact with cancer cells.
  • Cunningham and his graduate students are also using the biosensor technology to find a chemical compound that can counter Parkinson’s disease.

ECE researchers are using biosensors in a variety of collaborative research projects across the Illinois campus.
ECE researchers are using biosensors in a variety of collaborative research projects across the Illinois campus.

During the past three years, ECE Associate Professor Brian T. Cunningham and his graduate students have been developing new ways to use photonic crystals in biosensing. Their research projects involve collaboration with several departments within the University.

Several of these projects involve a technology called Bio-molecular Interaction Detection, commonly referred to as BIND, which is used to detect the binding between two molecules or between one molecule and a cell. Cunningham (BSEE ’86, MSEE ’87, PhD ’90) developed the technology at SRU Biosystems, a biotechnology firm in the Boston area that he co-founded in 2000; he still serves as the chief technology officer for the company.

The graduate students in Cunningham’s Nano Sensors Group working with BIND include Leo Chan (BSEE ’04, MSEE ’06), Charles Choi (BSEE ’05, MSEE ’07), Ian Block (MSEE ’06), Nikhil Ganesh, Wei Zhang, Sherine George, and Patrick Mathias. From this group, Chan and George are currently working with Speech and Hearing Science Professor Ken Watkin and some of his graduate students, in the Beckman Institute, to study how different chemical compounds interact with human cancer cells.

"In this project, we can grow cancer cells on the sensor and then expose them to many different chemicals," Cunningham said. "Then we can see what chemical compounds cause the cells either to die or, in some cases, grow faster... We are looking for chemicals that might be potentially good treatments for different types of cancer through their ability to cause cancer cells to die, while leaving noncancerous cells alone."

Brian T. Cunningham
Brian T. Cunningham

Cunningham said that the chemical products the researchers are using are all derived from plants that are native to Pakistan and India.

"Sometimes drug treatments come from exotic plants and bacteria because there is a unique chemical compound, enzyme, or other protein that is uniquely produced by the species," he said. "We expose the cancer cells to extracts from the plants and look to see what, if anything, will increase cancer cell death rate. Any successful plant extracts are studied in greater detail to determine the active components."

The research, which is a collaboration of the University of Illinois and researchers in Pakistan, is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a government agency providing U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance.

Cunningham and his graduate students are also using the biosensor technology to find a chemical compound that can counter Parkinson’s disease. For this project, they work with Chemistry Professor Paul Hergenrother and his graduate students. Research involves looking at chemical compounds that can stop a particular protein, currently the key one in Parkinson’s, from interacting with DNA.

"We use the sensors to assist real biology research, so we have gone beyond developing and improving the technology," Cunningham said.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that conducts and supports medical research, funds the research.

In collaboration with Pathobiology Professor Mark Kuhlenschmidt and his students, Cunningham and his team are interested in having sensors detect viruses found in groundwater. The group has already developed tests for the porcine rotavirus and is currently working on a test for cryptosporidium, a highly contagious waterborne pathogen that affects humans and animals.

"Viruses may get into water from places where high concentrations of animals live, such as hog and cattle farms," Cunningham said. "Sometimes, viruses can find their way into drinking water or into water that is used to irrigate crops... Stricter requirements are coming from The United States Department of Agriculture to monitor water that is used for those purposes."

While the project currently has no source of funding, Cunningham said he and others have gathered substantial data and are currently writing various grant proposals to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Finally, the ECE research team is working with Crop Sciences Professor Glen Hartman and his students. They are currently developing tests aimed at detecting soybean rust spores, a soybean disease originally found in Asian countries and identified in the United States in 2004.

"As global temperatures have gone up, soybean rust has been making its way further north," Cunningham said. "Since then, people are interested in developing monitoring stations that can find the spores when they arrive so farmers know when to apply fungicides and other things to protect their crops."

The research is sponsored by the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology, a program through the University of Missouri that provides genomic resources and bioengineering technology to support the U.S. Soybean Industry.

Cunningham is affiliated with the Micro and Nano Technology Laboratory on campus.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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