The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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New Technology to Speed up and Miniaturize Clinical Diagnostics

T.J. (Lakis) Mountziaris, professor and head of the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts and director of the UMass NanoMedicine Institute, has received $25,000 from the university’s Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property (CVIP) office to conduct experiments aimed at commercializing a new class of biological sensors that enable rapid testing of clinical samples for disease markers and environmental samples for biological contaminants. The biological sensors developed by Dr. Mountziaris and Dr. Jun Wang, a postdoctoral associate in Dr. Mountziaris’ research group, employ tiny semiconductor crystals (nanocrystals) that are attached to biological probe molecules, such as antibodies or single-stranded DNA.

When a probe biomolecule binds to its intended target, the fluorescence emission of the nanocrystal attached to it changes, thus enabling instantaneous detection of the target.

The team is developing detection protocols, called assays, to enable rapid detection and quantitative analysis of infectious disease and cancer markers, DNA mutations, acute cardiovascular and neurological disease markers, pathogens in public water supplies, and biological security threats.

A patent application for this invention has been filed by the university, and investors have already shown interest, so Dr. Mountziaris is hopeful that the new technology will be commercialized in the near future.

“We have already demonstrated in our laboratory that this is a platform technology that can be applied to a variety of probe-target pairs,” explains Dr. Mountziaris. “Now, with the CVIP funding, we will focus on demonstrating its commercial potential for a certain class of infectious diseases.”

The new biological sensors consist of probe biomolecules attached to fluorescent nanocrystals made of a semiconductor called zinc selenide. The nanocrystals serve as light-emitting beacons that instantaneously report the binding of the probes to the biological targets they are designed to detect. The new sensors can be engineered to work in parallel, thus enabling simultaneous screening of several targets in the same sample, a very useful feature for high-throughput screening applications.  

The multiplexing capability of the sensors and their very short response time also enable miniaturization of the diagnostic devices, making them portable and suitable for use at the point of care. The analogy that Mountziaris uses is the miniaturization of computing technologies from room-sized mainframe computers, to desktops, and laptops. He points out that miniaturization of clinical diagnostic devices and simplification of the detection schemes being employed will make them suitable for use by health care workers in the field, a very useful feature for administering health care to patients in remote locations, Third World countries, and during military operations. Extensions of this technology to animal care and screening of water and food supplies for pathogens are also envisioned.

The CVIP-funded project aims at demonstrating the commercial potential of this new class of biological sensors. “An important goal of our project is the development of advanced assays for biological detection applications,” Mountziaris says. “‘Advanced,’ in this case, means detection assays that are faster and more sensitive, require a much smaller sample, and can detect multiple targets in the same sample without cross interference. Many of the clinical diagnostic techniques that we use today can be made more efficient by developing better biosensors, like the ones we pursue in our laboratory.”

Mountziaris will use the CVIP funds to develop and test rapid immunoassays for detecting infectious disease markers. His lab will also study the sensitivity, specificity, and stability of the biological sensors to enable commercial development of the technology in clinical diagnostic instruments and public health screening applications.

“What will revolutionize medical diagnostics will be the development of portable instruments that can be used at the point of care, which can be a doctor’s office, an emergency room, a combat zone, or a remote village in a developing country,” says Mountziaris. “Our research aims at developing the next generation of biological sensors which will enable the design of diagnostic instruments that are portable, simpler to use, faster, and more sensitive, while utilizing smaller samples and enabling simultaneous detection of multiple targets.” (April 2011)