NIH Awards $2.3M to Bioengineer to Advance Diagnosis, Treatment of Autoimmune Diseases

Marta Figueiredo, PhD avatar

by Marta Figueiredo, PhD |

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a $2.3 million grant to a bioengineer at Indiana University’s Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering to improve diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

The project aims to find ways to detect disease-associated cells based on their ability to adhere, or “stick,” to others. If successful, the degree of “stickiness” of circulating cells in blood and other body fluids may be used as a biomarker to help diagnose several disorders and monitor their progression and treatment responses.

Feng Guo, PhD, the principal investigator of the Intelligent Biomedical Systems Lab and an assistant professor of intelligent systems engineering at Luddy School, was one of the 33 researchers receiving the 2020 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

The NIH award is meant to support exceptionally creative, early-career investigators who propose groundbreaking, high-impact projects in the fields of biomedical, behavioral, or social sciences.

In an Indiana University press release, Guo noted that current clinical tests are unable to adequately predict disease progression or measure treatment responses in MS patients due to a lack of sufficiently sensitive or effective biomarkers.

With this grant, Guo and his team will test whether cellular adhesion, or “stickiness” — which reflect cellular interactions — have potential to fill this biomarker gap.

Interactions between cells are key to many biological processes such as cell-cell communication, tissue and organ formation, immune reactions, and cancer spread. Not surprisingly, problems in cell-cell communication have been associated with several conditions, including autoimmune diseases, cancer, and diabetes.

While identifying the underlying mechanisms of cellular interactions may be essential to better understand and treat such diseases, a number of technical limitations have prevented further advancement.

The major limitation in current technology is that it either can measure only one cell with high precision, or a large number of cells with lower precision.

During his PhD studies, Guo developed pioneering 3D acoustic tweezers and microfluidic technologies for single-cell manipulation and analysis. Acoustic tweezers are a powerful tool for contactless manipulation of particles and cells using sound waves; microfluidics is the science of manipulating fluids, and subsequently particles and cells, at a microscopic scale.

Now, Guo and his team will combine these technologies to develop a biomedical device that can “measure the single-cell stickiness of a large cell population by rupturing cells’ contacts,” said Guo.

“Because of the difficulty in distinguishing and sampling a disease-marker cell in clinical samples, the proposed biomedical device will also be designed to isolate single cells of particular stickiness for disease mechanism studies or treatment testing,” he added.

The researchers will evaluate whether cellular adhesion strength may be used to discriminate disease-associated cells and diagnose and monitor the progression of many autoimmune diseases — including MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease — and cancer.

“My goal is to prototype a portable, user-friendly intelligent biomedical system using low-cost disposable devices and bioinformatic analysis for wide applications in research laboratories and hospitals,” said Guo.

Kay Connelly, PhD, the associate dean for research and a professor of informatics at the Luddy School, said “this type of research is exactly the kind of work that showcases how researchers at the Luddy School innovate to create solutions.”

“This award will push Feng’s developments in the lab to a new level, and he will help us continue our tradition of leadership in a critical area,” Connelly said.

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