A pair of NJIT inventors have a novel electrochemical biosensing device that identifies the tiniest signals and they are hoping to bridge the gap in detecting diseases in the bloodstream. 

The pair's work in detection of diseases is an example of the power of electrical sensing and the growing role of engineers-in medical research.

"Ideally, there would be a simple, inexpensive test performed at a regular patient visit in the absence of specific symptoms to screen for some of the more silent, deadly cancers," says Bharath Babu Nunna, a recent Ph.D. graduate who worked with Eon Soo Lee, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, to develop a nanotechnology-enhanced biochip to detect cancers, malaria and viral diseases such as pneumonia early in their progression with a pinprick blood test.

Their biochip includes a microfluidic channel wherein a tiny amount of blood can flow past the platform and sense it, it is coated with biological agents that can bind the targeted biomarkers of disease that can be found in the body fluids like tears, urine, and blood. It is then triggered and releases an electrical nanocircuit that can signal the presence of the diseases. 

In research recently published in Nano Covergence, Nunna and his co-authors showed the used of gold nanoparticles to make the sensor signal more effective and responsive in the detection of cancer. 

One of the core innovations of the device is its ability to separate the whole blood that is placed in it to the blood plasma, and it is done in its microfluidic channels. The blood plasma then carries the biomarkers for the disease and it is necessary to separate them to show the signal to noise ratio in the device so that an accurate test can be achieved. The device can analyze a blood sample within just two minutes and there is no need for scientists to use external equipment. 

"Our approach detects targeted disease biomolecules at the femto scale concentration, which is smaller than nano and even pico scale, and is akin to searching for a planet in a galaxy cluster. Current sensing technology is limited to concentrations a thousand times larger. Using a nanoscale platform allows us to identify these lower levels of disease," Nunna says, adding, "And by separating the plasma from the blood, we are able to concentrate the disease biomarkers." 

In another recent paper in BioNanoScience, Nunna, Lee and their co-authors detailed their study on variations in sensitivity based on microfluidic flow.

"I'm primarily responsible for developing the microfluidic devices that will automate the process of bioprinting 3-D organs that will be incorporated on a chip for a number of purposes. I'm tasked, for example, with developing an automated platform for long-term drug efficacy and toxicity analysis to track liver cancer and cardiac biomarkers. I'll be integrating the microfluidic biosensor with the liver cancer- and heart-on-a-chip model for continuous monitoring," he says."By measuring the biomarker concentrations secreted from drug-injected 3-D-bioprinted organs, we can study drug effects on several organs without harming a live patient. Creating artificial organs allows us to experiment freely."

In years to come, he adds, the work at Harvard could be applied in regenerative medicine. "The goal is to develop fully functional 3-D-bioprinted organoids and clinically relevant 3-D tissues to address the issue of donor shortages in transplantation."

Nunna says his research at Harvard Medical School will help expand his knowledge of programmable microfluidics and precise electrochemical sensing techniques, which can then help him advance his biochip study and technology. 

Lee and Nunna have been working with oncologists at Weill Cornell Medicine and Hackensack Medical Center to identify clinical applications. The biochip is designed to provide quantitative and qualitative results of cancer antigens found in blood samples, and it can provide information on the severity of the disease found. 

"Although healthcare technology is considered to be a fast-evolving technology, there are still many unmet needs that need to be addressed. Diagnosing potentially deadly diseases at the early stages is the key to saving lives and improving patient treatment outcomes," he says, adding, "There is a huge need for healthcare technology, including a universal diagnostic platform that can provide instant results at the physician's office and other point-of-care settings."