Engineering Meets Biology

An IEEE Fellow is working on advances in bionanotechnology

7 December 2012

Few people are aware of what a major player IEEE is in the field of life sciences, not least because its activities are scattered across 29 of the organization’s societies, technical councils, and committees. The life sciences encompass nanobiotechnology, genomics, health informatics, and surgical robots, as well as ways to improve health care and lower medical costs.

To raise awareness of its involvement, the IEEE Board of Directors last year established the Life Sciences New Initiative (LSNI) project. With the help of the LSNI committee, this special life sciences issue of The Institute showcases IEEE’s offerings, describes what a career in life sciences could be like, and spotlights the work of several leaders in the field.

IEEE and its members have contributed to the field with new applications, standards for medical device communications, conferences, periodicals, and books.

IEEE Fellows Rashid Bashir and Guang-Zhong Yang spoke with The Institute about their work in nanobiotechnology, which uses microscopic materials and devices to study and solve large biological and medical problems, and surgical robots. They were speakers at the IEEE Life Sciences Grand Challenges Conference, held in October in Washington, D.C.

Bashir, a professor of electrical and computer and bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), is director of the university’s Micro and Nanotechnology Lab, a campus facility for nanofabrication and nanobiotechnology. Yang is director and cofounder of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery and deputy chairman of the Institute of Global Health Innovation, both at Imperial College London.

Bashir is an expert in applying micro- and nanotechnology to biotechnology and medicine. He and his team of researchers in Illinois are using nanobiotechnology to develop chip-based sensors (such as the one pictured above, held by Bashir) that can detect molecules related to cancer earlier than traditional methods can. Cancer mortality rates can be reduced if cases are detected and treated early.

Lab-on-chip sensors could allow doctors to detect small concentrations of a cancer biomarker—in some cases with just a few molecules—right in their offices, in patients’ homes, or in remote villages. Known as point-of-care (POC) diagnostic devices, the sensors make do with small samples of tissue or blood, so procedures are less invasive.

Bashir is working on POC devices for cancer detection, which can be advanced by developing new label-free sensing components—based on a silicon field-effect sensor, the same device used in computer memory chips. Actually, the nano-biosensors are built around silicon nanowire FETs that can detect microRNA, short strands of ribonucleic acid molecules.

Promoting interference with the right RNA plays an important role in defending cells against cancer. MicroRNAs bind to messenger RNAs, causing repression of undesirable proteins, gene silencing, and expression of proteins that are typically altered in several forms of cancer.

“The expression of microRNA at various stages has become important in cancer detection and for monitoring the state of the disease,” Bashir says. “Previous research has shown a difference in the expression of microRNA molecules in cancer cells and even in blood serum samples from cancer patients.”

Bashir’s devices would detect those microRNA molecules in intracellular products from small biopsy samples.

Bringing the testing closer to the patient also eliminates the time and cost of visiting a laboratory. Such devices would not completely replace a lab, Bashir says, but they would make accurate testing faster and cheaper and could revolutionize cancer treatment.

Bashir’s group is also at work on a related project involving a different type of microsensor. It determines the relationship between a cell’s mass and growth rate. For nearly 50 years biologists have been studying whether cells grow at a fixed rate or whether growth accelerates as mass increases.

The researchers developed a unique array of microelectro-mechanical (MEM) resonant mass sensors suspended on the platform of a chip. The tiny weighing scales consist of platforms that are 50 micrometers wide, about half the diameter of a human hair. They were able to culture cancer cells on the chip—similar to the way scientists grow cells in a petri dish—allowing them to collect data from many cells at once while still being able to record individual cell measurements.

The suspended scale vibrates at a particular frequency, which changes with mass. As a cell’s mass increases, the sensor’s resonant frequency decreases. Being able to measure the mass and growth rate of cancer cells can shed light on cancer biology and potentially discriminate between cancer and noncancer cells.

The microsensors were used to measure individual colon cancer cells’ masses and growth rates. Prev­ious studies used an aggregate population of cells, making it impossible to determine patterns of individual cell growth. The researchers found the cells’ growth rates increased as the cell masses became larger, with the average rate increasing linearly with cell mass. Documenting the processes could help identify whether cancer is present and help develop drugs or diagnostic tools to slow or stop cancer cell growth.

“We believe our measurement system can be used for studying various cellular processes, such as cell growth, cell cycle progression, and differentiation,” Bashir says.

Both sensor projects are in their early stages of development. The first project is funded by the Midwest Cancer Nanotechnology Training Center, a regional hub at UIUC for the National Cancer Institute Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, of which Bashir is a co­principal investigator. The second project is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Cellular and Molecular Mechanics and Bionano­technology Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, which Bashir also coleads.

He sees a great need for IEEE and its members to get involved in developing instrumentation not only for better diagnostic tools but also to reduce the cost of health care.

“Cancer, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, HIV-AIDS, and other medical conditions are worldwide problems and a major cost challenge for many countries,” he says. “Using technology to bring the diagnostics and management of diseases to the patient in a personalized way will bring down costs.

“We have to train the next generation of thought leaders in areas interfacing engineering and biology and make the public more aware of how these exciting interdisciplinary efforts are changing the world.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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