News Release

Blood substitute made from nanoparticles wins top prize at Research Expo 2019

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Jacobs School Dean Albert P. Pisano poses with the Research Expo 2019 winners.

San Diego, Calif., Apr. 24, 2019 -- Research Expo 2019 got some new blood this year, thanks to UC San Diego nanoengineering PhD student Jia Zhuang. He won the grand prize at Research Expo for his work to develop nanoparticles that could serve as a more stable and easy way to store and mimic red blood cells for transfusions. 

Zhuang received the Lea Rudee Outstanding Poster Award as well as the Best Poster Award for the Department of NanoEngineering.

His research aims to address a problem with blood that is stored for transfusions—it does not keep well. Even when refrigerated, red blood cells can start to go bad within a few weeks. Proteins inside the cells can degrade during storage and decrease the cells’ ability to carry oxygen.

“That makes it extremely challenging to keep up with the high demand for red blood cell transfusions,” Zhuang said. “Shortages in blood supply are not just due to lack of donated blood. Once a batch expires, it has to be tossed. And that’s a waste of a precious resource.”

Working under the direction of nanoengineering professor Liangfang Zhang at UC San Diego, Zhuang developed a red blood cell substitute that can store longer. The idea was to create nanoparticles that look and act like red blood cells, but do not have perishable proteins inside.

The recipe involved separating the membranes from red blood cells, splicing them into tiny pieces, and then wrapping them around nano-sized droplets made of oxygen-carrying liquids called perfluorocarbons. This red blood cell coating allows the nanoparticles to evade immune attack and remain in circulation in the bloodstream.

“Our design basically removes all the proteins inside the red blood cells and keeps the membrane, which is the stable part. We replace the proteins with perfluorocarbons, which are also stable and known for their oxygen-carrying capability. And although perfluorocarbons are synthetic materials, we do not have to worry about them triggering an immune response because they are disguised as mini red blood cells in the body,” Zhuang said.

By improving the shelf life of red blood cells, Zhuang says this technology could help with blood transfusions in places that lack ideal storage conditions, such as remote villages and the battlefield. “This is a great example of how we can use engineering to meet a critical global need and save lives,” Zhuang said.

Recognizing market potential

In addition to the Lea Rudee Outstanding Poster Award, the Research Expo judges awarded six department Best Poster winners (highlighted below), the Library Best Poster Award for best literature review, and the Ignite Prize for Most Commercial Potential, an award from the UC San Diego Office of Innovation and Commercialization.

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Geoffrey Hollett, winner of this year's Ignite Prize for Most Commercial Potential, with alumna and Research Expo judge Silvia De Dea.

The winner of this commercialization award was UC San Diego materials science and engineering graduate student Geoffrey Hollett, who also received the Katie Osterday Best Poster Award for the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Hollett described his project as “a way to make birth control better.” He developed a porous silicon material—a sponge, essentially—that can be infused with a progestin hormone, which is used as birth control medication. The “sponge” is designed to provide a slow and consistent release of the hormone over a long period of time. The goal is to offer a safer and more effective alternative to injectable contraceptives, which are usually the only option available to women in developing countries. These birth control shots often supply the hormone in high and unpredictable doses, which can prolong the delay in a woman’s return to fertility and lead to irreversible loss of bone mineral density.

“Our goal is to help women in the developing world, where access to sterile facilities for an IUD insertion may not be available, or a package of daily pills is not culturally acceptable,” Hollett said. “Being able to administer their own birth control in private, and then not having to worry about it for a year could be a major step to lowering maternal mortality rates and giving these women better agency over their lives.”

Many of the alumni who volunteered their time as judges for the event said they were inspired by the quality of the graduate students’ work and their applications to industry and society.

“It's amazing to see research that’s relevant to us as a company,” said Nik Devereaux, director of software engineering at Viasat.

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Research Expo Outstanding Poster winner Jia Zhuang explains his poster to alumnus Sam Knight, who served as a judge for the event.

While attending Research Expo this year, Devereaux was particularly interested in the research summarized in a poster about differential privacy, which aims to more efficiently protect user information while preserving the ability to do meaningful network performance analytics. This is relevant for Viasat, which as an Internet provider cares deeply about protecting consumer information, he said. Devereaux earned a bachelor’s in computer science in 2001 and a master of advanced studies in architecture-based enterprise systems engineering in 2011 from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. 

Devereaux's colleague David Snyder was particularly interested in a poster about detecting malware embedded into hardware.  The research suggested additional design and testing considerations for Snyder, a system security engineer at Viasat who earned his bachelor's from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Jacobs School in 2000.

Liane Matthes was also back at Research Expo after earning her PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Jacobs School in 2016. “This is actually how I got my job,” she said. An industry representative from ASML was there as a judge and stopped by her poster. That connection led to her getting hired by the company a year later. “The experience was beneficial for me. I wanted to come back to support this event as a judge, passing on the opportunity to other students to get in touch with industry, potential jobs and internships,” Matthes said.

“We are extremely proud of the work our students do and we want to showcase it,” said Albert P. Pisano, dean of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. “We are trying to make connections between industry representatives and our students and faculty. This is a healthy way to keep the transition from academia to industry strong and alive.”

Award winners

Shu and K.C. Chien Best Poster, Bioengineering Best Poster
Application of Cybernetic Control Variables in the Modeling of Lipid Metabolism in Mammalian Systems
Presenter: Lina Aboulmouna
Advisor: Shankar Subramaniam

Computer Science and Engineering Best Poster
Hierarchical Learning and Inference Beyond the Edge
Presenters: Anthony Thomas, Yunhui Guo
Advisor: Arun Kumar, Tajana Simunic-Rosing

Electrical and Computer Engineering Best Poster
Robust Velocity Control for Minimum Steady State Uncertainty in Persistent Monitoring Applications
Presenter: Michael Ostertag
Advisor: Nikolay Atanasov, Tajana Simunic-Rosing

Katie Osterday Best Poster, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Best Poster
A Longer Lasting Injectable: Sustained, Linear Release of a Progestin from a Porous Silicon Host
Presenter: Geoffrey Hollett
Advisor: Michael Sailor

NanoEngineering Best Poster
Biomimetic Nanoemulsions as a Blood Substitute for Oxygen Delivery in vivo
Presenter: Jia Zhuang
Advisor: Liangfang Zhang

Structural Engineering Best Poster
Numerical Investigation of the Evolution of Fiber Kinking Damage in Composites under Cyclic Loads
Presenter: Paulina Diaz-Montiel
Advisors: Satchi Venkataraman, Hyonny Kim

UC San Diego Library’s Best Literature Review Award
Modified Geometrical Shock Dynamics Applied to 2D Blast Wave Focusing
Presenter: Heng Liu
Advisor: Veronica Eliasson


Thank you to all of the sponsors who supported this event: ASML, Viasat, Leidos, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Brain Corp, Qualcomm, UC San Diego Extension, and UC San Diego Research Affairs, Office of Innovation and Commercialization.

Media Contacts

Liezel Labios
Jacobs School of Engineering