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NJIT device aimed at early detection of deadly diseases wins NJ Health Foundation backing

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New Jersey Health Foundation (NJHF) has awarded NJIT engineer Eon Soo Lee a $50,000 Innovation Grant to develop a nanotechnology-enhanced biochip that would give doctors and patients in a range of healthcare settings the ability to detect deadly diseases such as ovarian cancer and pneumonia early in their progression.

The device includes a microfluidic channel through which a tiny amount of drawn blood flows past a "sensing platform" coated with biological agents that bind with antigens – biomarkers of disease that elicit an immune response by the body – thereby triggering an electrical nanocircuit that signals their presence.

The chip's biosensors are "highly sensitive to small amounts of very specific antigens," explained Lee, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who added that a single biochip's platform could potentially include sensors for several diseases, from cancers to viral infections.

The technology is being designed for use by specialists and primary doctors and, Lee hopes, healthcare workers in remote clinics in developing countries who can administer the tests with a simple finger prick.

"As we know, early detection can improve treatment outcomes for patients significantly," explained George F. Heinrich, M.D., vice chair and CEO of NJHF, a not-for-profit corporation that supports biomedical research and health-related education programs in New Jersey. "Currently, doctors rely on diagnostic devices requiring a minimum of four hours of sample preparation through centralized diagnostic centers rather than their local offices. We are interested in Dr. Lee's project because the biochip he is developing would provide instant results at a local office or point of care without needing sample preparation."

If successful, the biochip will expedite the diagnosis of diseases including viral infections such as HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and toxoplasmosis and cancers such as prostate, liver and thyroid cancer.

Lee is now working with oncologists at Hackensack Medical Center who care for women with ovarian cancer – often undetectable until it has reached a late stage that is difficult to treat – to develop and test the technology.

"Screenings for ovarian cancer are often cumbersome and uncomfortable," Lee noted.

The biochip is designed to reduce the possibility of sample contamination by minimizing the need for flow control devices and connecting tubes. It analyzes a tiny amount of blood within two minutes without any external devices.

One of the device's core innovations is the ability to separate blood plasma from whole blood in its microfluidic channels. Blood plasma carries the disease biomarkers and it is therefore necessary to separate it to reduce detection "noise" in order to achieve a highly accurate test, Lee explained.

In addition to Hackensack Medical Center, collaborators include researchers at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Brookhaven National Laboratory's Center for Functional Nanomaterials.

"The partnership and support from the New Jersey Health Foundation is a critical component of our efforts to advance commercialization of early-stage life science technologies," said Judith Sheft, associate vice president for technology and enterprise development at NJIT's New Jersey Innovation Institute.

Ms. Sheft noted that Dr. Lee had previously won funding for his research from the National Science Foundation I-Corps program as an NJIT site team, and then from the agency's national program.

Lee, who directs NJIT's Advanced Energy Systems and Microdevices Laboratory, has a background in micro- and nano-channel fabrication, flow characterization and nanomaterial implementation and develops fuel cell and energy technology, in addition to biomedical devices.

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About NJIT

One of the nation's leading public technological universities, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is a top-tier research university that prepares students to become leaders in the technology-dependent economy of the 21st century. NJIT's multidisciplinary curriculum and computing-intensive approach to education provide technological proficiency, business acumen and leadership skills. With an enrollment of 11,400 graduate and undergraduate students, NJIT offers small-campus intimacy with the resources of a major public research university. NJIT is a global leader in such fields as solar research, nanotechnology, resilient design, tissue engineering, and cybersecurity, in addition to others. NJIT is among the top U.S. polytechnic public universities in research expenditures, exceeding $130 million, and is among the top 1 percent of public colleges and universities in return on educational investment, according to PayScale.com. NJIT has a $1.74 billion annual economic impact on the State of New Jersey.

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