Dr. Brian Cunningham leads an interdisciplinary research group focused on the application of sub-wavelength optical phenomena and fabrication methods to the development of novel devices and instrumentation for the life sciences. He discusses his work and its implications for patient care.
IEEE tv: What is your Current area of research?
Brian Cunningham: Our group works on applications of optics, and electroagnetics, and bio-sensing, and chemical sensing. So we develop different varieties of nano-structured optical surfaces that can interact with he light from a laser or the light from an LED in a specific way to focus its energy into very small surfaces, or very small gaps on the surface. So we can use these approaches for doing label-free detection of proteins, and drug molecules for doing work like pharmaceutical high-throughput screening. We’ve developed new approaches for detection of drugs being delivered intravenously to a patient in a hospital, through which we can detect optical scattering from drug molecules using an approach called surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy. We’ve developed approaches for performing very high sensitivity assays for detection of biomarkers in serum; for doing early detection of cancer, and characterization of allergy, and detection of autoimmune disease. And then we’ve done some work developing new tools for imaging the attachment of cells to surfaces; which is fundamental to how cells interact with basement membranes in the body, and how cells undergo metastasis, cell death differentiation, and wound-healing. So, in all those approaches we make sensors that can interact with small molecules, cells, viruses, or bacteria in particular ways, and we make detection instruments that allow us to take quantitative data or images of the things that we’re measuring.
IEEE tv: What new technologies have made these advanced tools possible?
Brian Cunningham: The foundation for some of our sensing approaches is the development of nano-structured surfaces called photonic crystals. Photonic crystals are dielectric-based structures that can resonate with particular wavelengths of light. What that means is that you can shine all wavelengths of light at a photonic crystal, but only a select, and very narrow, band of wavelengths will be captured by it and focused into a very small region close to the photonic crystal’s surface. So, we’ve found that this electric fiels that’s concentrated on the photonic crystal can be manipulated by the absorption of bio-molecules, and by cells that attach to the photonic crystal. So in our work we’ve developed ways of making these photonic crystal structures very inexpensively out of plastic or out of silicon; so that even though they have nanoscale features, they can still be manufactured inexpensively because many of the applications we want to use them for are single-use disposable types of things. So we’ve found that photonic crystals can also be used to, very substantially, boost the output of fluorescent dye molecules that are used to tag cancer biomarkers that we seek to detect; that we can make that fluorescence much higher than it would normally be; also we can reduce the limits of detection and do things like early disease detection.
IEEE tv: What benefit will the application of these technologies bring to the average patient?
Brian Cunningham: In our work with photonic crystal fluorescence enhancement, we’ve developed chips that can be incorporated with a small disposable cartridge that interfaces with a readout instrument that’s also small and inexpensive. Our system allows a person to take a single droplet of blood and put that into the micro-fluidic device; and then the system will perform tests for between 10 and 20 biomarkers at the same time, and do that whole test in less than an hour. So, in terms of the patient, we’re considering approaches that testing can be brought closer to where the patient is, not performed by the patients themselves, but perhaps at a clinic, a doctor’s office or something like that; where a very non-invasive test can be performed, to flag the presence of different bio-markers. There are biomarkers not only for cancer, but for cardiovascular disease, asthma, and many other things. So, you can imagine in the future, going in to the doctor, having a single droplet of blood taken, and then, perhaps, used to characterize many different things. A test like that might not be a definitive test for cancer, but might flag someone as being a candidate for an MRI scan, or something they wouldn’t ordinarily get. In terms of tracing things like following the treatment of cancer, or following a patient who is being treated for cardiovascular disease, these tests can become very routine, because they’re inexpensive and non-invasive. So, hopefully, this will be something that will allow medical problems to be identified early, before a person is going into the emergency room, or having a large tumor that has gotten to the stage where it is not treatable.
IEEE tv: Could this increase the efficacy of diagnostic procedures?
Brian Cunningham: In the area of breast cancer, for example, the current mode of treatment is mammogram. But the trouble with mammography is that it has a very high false positive rate. So, that means that if a person is going in for mammography every year, there’s a very high likelihood that they will have a positive result turn up; which, in turn, triggers biopsies, a lot of invasiveness, a lot of anxiety. So, we’re hoping that biomarker blood tests can be used to complement mammography to reduce the amount of un-needed medical care that’s delivered, while still making the whole process more accurate.
Brian T. Cunningham is a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also serves as the Interim Director of the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, and as Director of the NSF Center for Agricultural, Biomedical, and Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology. His research is in the development of biosensors and detection instruments for pharmaceutical high throughput screening, disease diagnostics, point-of-care testing, life science research, and environmental monitoring. Read more