Dr. Brian T. Cunningham
IEEE Distinguished Lecturer
Director, Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory
Donald Biggar Willett Professor in Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The most demanding challenges in diagnostics require detection of low concentrations of virus, proteins, or nucleic acids within test samples comprised of only a few droplets of test sample. The idea of a “liquid biopsy” in which biomarkers for disease can be detected in a single droplet of blood from a fingerstick will enable diagnostic tests to be performed with much less pain, inconvenience, and invasiveness compared to tissue biopsy or a blood draw performed by a phlebotomist. The potential to perform routine (daily) ultrasensitive diagnostic tests using simple assay protocols and inexpensive detection instruments is the driving force behind “personalized” cancer treatment that is directed towards specific mutations as they evolve, the ability to adjust antiviral therapy in response to viral load, and the ability to detect/identify deadly pathogens.
This presentation will summarize recent efforts in the Cunningham group to develop point-of-care, digital-resolution technologies for sensing pathogens and molecular disease biomarkers in bodily fluids. Utilizing the unique properties of photonic crystal nanostructured surfaces, we have developed approaches for enhancing the output of photon emitters, such as semiconductor quantum dots (QD), by >100x, enabling individual emitters to be detected with high contrast. We are applying photonic crystal enhanced fluorescence (PCEF) of QD tags towards detection of circulating mRNA and miRNA that are correlated with specific mutations involved in prostate cancer. In parallel, we have developed a new form of biosensor microscopy, called NanoParticle Photonic Resonator Absorption Microscopy (NP-PRAM) in which plasmonic gold nanoparticles serve as resonant-matched nanoantennas that, when attached to a photonic crystal surface, enabling single nanoparticles to be visualized with high contrast. We are developing novel assay methods and detection instruments that enable NP-PRAM to quantify femtomolar concentrations of miRNA biomarkers, with a simple, rapid test that does not require chemical amplification. We are also applying NP-PRAM to detection intact HIV particles as a direct approach to viral load monitoring. While PCEF and NP-PRAM detection systems are intended for the laboratory bench, we are also developing mobile sensing platforms that utilize a smartphone’s internal camera as the detection instrument, in conjunction with a handheld special-purpose cradle. We are developing microfluidic chips that perform nucleic acid amplification assays, in which the amplification process can be dynamically imaged to enable counting of pathogenic DNA.
Brian Cunningham’s group focuses on the development of nanophotonic surfaces, plastic-based nanofabrication methods, and novel instrumentation approaches for biodetection with applications in pharmaceutical screening, life science research, environmental monitoring, disease diagnostics, and point-of-care patient testing. At Illinois, Prof. Cunningham serves as the Director of the Bioengineering Graduate Program and Director of the NSF Center for Agricultural, Biomedical, and Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology (CABPN). He was the founder and the Chief Technical Officer of SRU Biosystems (Woburn, MA), a life science tools company that provides high sensitivity plastic-based optical biosensors, instrumentation, and software to the pharmaceutical, academic research, genomics, and proteomics communities. He also serves as the Manager of Biomedical Technology at Draper Laboratory (Cambridge, MA) and a Group Leader for MEMS Sensors at Draper Laboratory and an Associate Director of the Center for Innovative Minimally Invasive Therapy (CIMIT). Prof. Cunningham was recognized with the IEEE Sensors Council 2010 Technical Achievement Award for the invention, development, and commercialization of biosensors utilizing photonic crystals.