Auburn researcher receives $1.9 million grant for rapid immune diagnostics

By Chris Anthony

Published: Dec 5, 2019 1:54:00 PM

Pengyu Chen Pengyu Chen

An Auburn Engineering faculty member has received a $1.9 million National Institutes of Health grant – the largest NIH grant the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering has ever received. 

The grant will support Pengyu Chen, assistant professor of materials engineering, in his project to develop next-generation, rapid diagnostic tools for the health care industry. 

For doctors, having real-time data on the health and function of a patient’s immune system is critical to treating cancer and autoimmune diseases. However, one of the main diagnostic tools in use today, the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, must be sent to a lab and takes hours to days for results to return. 

By then, the dynamics of the immune system may have completely changed, leaving the clinician to make treatment decisions based on outdated information. 

Chen is aiming to change that by developing optofluidic nanoplasmonic biosensors for rapid analysis of the immune system. The research study seeks to better understand and measure cytokines – tiny proteins vital to signaling between cells – for rapid diagnostics. 

“The ultimate goal is to develop a biomedical device based on nanoparticles that we can use to take one droplet of the patient’s blood and, in a short period of time, we can accurately tell if the patient’s immune system is healthy or not,” Chen said. 

The research project has three primary goals: to integrate nanoplasmonic structures into biosensors for higher performance and faster response time; to fabricate microfluidic devices for target cell isolation and on-chip measurements and analysis; and to develop nanoplasmon ruler biosensors – two nanoparticles linked with one DNA – to visualize cytokines secreted from a single immune cell and eventually map out its secretion profile. Previous research suggests that measuring cytokine-based immune fingerprints provides useful information related to infectious diseases, cancer and other diseases. 

“We are trying to provide real-time feedback of the immune system for personalized immunomodulatory therapies,” Chen said. “Currently, there is no technology that can serve as a real-time diagnostic tool to tell if the dosage and timing of a therapy is good or not. Our hope is that we can develop a point-of-care technology that can be used at bedside so that physicians can make decisions based on these measurements more quickly and accurately, and then potentially change the outcome of the therapeutics.” 

The grant is funded through the NIH’s R35 Maximizing Investigators' Research Award for Early Stage Investigators program. The five-year grant will allow Chen to hire up to three doctoral students and two postdoctoral researchers to assist with the study.

Media Contact: Chris Anthony, chris.anthony@auburn.edu, 334.844.3447

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