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News Release

UC San Diego Professor Awarded $300K for Mobile Health Lab-on-Chip Technology

Shaya Fainman

San Diego, Calif., Aug. 4, 2014 -- University of California, San Diego Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Shaya Fainman has been awarded $300,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop a portable device with a disposable cartridge “lab-on-chip” (CLOC). The device will use bodily fluids to help people determine if they have a viral or bacterial infection or are experiencing an allergic reaction.  

“Our vision,” says Fainman, “is to create a disposable chip that you will be able to buy over-the-counter. It will be integrated with receptors that work fluids from the body – saliva, urine, sweat or blood. The idea is similar to the idea of a diabetic using his blood to test insulin levels, only we’d be testing for the presence of bacteria- or virus-caused antibodies.” Fainman’s collaborator from the UC San Diego School of Medicine, Dr. Victor Nizet (a professor of Medicine and Phamacy), will serve as a co-principal investigator to help with most recent advances in developing biomarkers.   

The grant, which was awarded through the NSF Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems, comes on the heels of Fainman’s recent grant through the Calit2 Strategic Research Opportunities (CSRO) program. That CSRO will provide a one-year seed grant of $50,000 for the project. (The Qualcomm Institute is the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2.)  

Fainman’s current work stems from his collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Optical Centers program on Optifluidics Integration. Together with researchers at Caltech, UC San Diego, Harvard and Stanford, he developed a way to integrate microfluidics (small volumes of fluid) with optical and nanophotonic devices on the same chip. 

“That work made it possible to not only analyze fluids but to package the tools necessary to do this in small system that is low-cost,” he says. “An optical table (a platform that is commonly used to support systems for engineering optics experiments) used to occupy half a room, and now we can do all of that on a chip.”

The miniaturized lab-on-chip system will consist of a small box that will connect to a mobile phone via a USB port and/or wireless link. The patient would draw a drop of blood or other bodily fluid onto the disposable microfluidic chip, CLOC, which is integrated with nanophotonic/plasmonic transducers that can determine the presence of certain biomarkers. 

The CLOC will then be inserted into the box, which uses a spectrometer to make two measurements. The first is plasmonic resonance detection of the presence of viruses, bacteria or allergens, and the second is Raman spectrum, which detects the presence of certain specific “fingerprint” molecules and can discriminate between antibodies due to viruses, bacteria or allergens.

The mobile phone will serve as an electronic interface and controller, and will rapidly perform the statistical data analysis using these two measurements and well-established statistical pattern algorithms. New algorithms to be developed by Fainman’s co-Principal Investigator on the project, ECE Department Chair Troung Nguyen. Another co-Principal Investigator, Prof. Drew Hall, will lead the creation of electronic interfaces for communication and control of the system.

“These algorithms," says Fainman, "would help us determine the probability of a person having one viral infection versus another, or classify which specific bacterial infection – say streptococcus – the person has. 

“It still requires that a person communicate with his or her physician, who can take a look at the results and provide a prescription or ask the patient to come in for further tests,” he explains. “It’s a way of making healthcare more cost-effective by making early testing cheaper. Our goal is to make the disposable chips costs 10 cents or less, which would even make it cost-effective for developing countries.”

The prototype for the device, Fainman notes, will be created in the Qualcomm Institute’s Nano3 cleanrooms with the lab’s e-beam lithography tools and nanofabrication processes. He says the spectrometer-equipped box would initially cost a few hundred dollars, but will likely come down in cost once mass-produced using nanoprint technologies. Eventually, the device could be used by physicians to do point-of-care diagnosis. 

“I like to work on things that will have a large-scale impact, and that’s basically the motivation here,” says Fainman.  “The key to success of such multidisciplinary project is to establish a close collaboration between faculty from the disciplines essential to building such a system; moreover it is good to see that in addition to NSF, UC San Diego recognizes that this is an important project and decided to leverage it.”

Media Contacts

Doug Ramsey
Jacobs School of Engineering

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering

Tiffany Fox
Qualcomm Institute