Collaboration Spotlight: May 2021

From the Siebel Design Center to the Master’s in Health Technology program, collaboration between the 16 colleges on our campus has flourished in recent years and ushered in a new era of interdisciplinary innovation that has revolutionized science. The Health Care Engineering Systems Center was established in 2014 with this idea in mind as stewards of the Jump ARCHES endowment, a partnership between OSF HealthCare in Peoria and The Grainger College of Engineering. The partnership fosters collaboration between engineers, physicians, social scientists, and local and state agencies to advance medicine by applying new technologies and research methods to existing problems.

The focus on interdisciplinary research was augmented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s implications stretched beyond medicine and treatment to mass diagnostics and vaccination, exacerbating social and behavioral disparities as a result. Jump ARCHES enlisted researchers to discover solutions to these problems through two special funding calls: one immediately after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, and one that focused on impending post-pandemic challenges in Spring 2021. A total of 24 grants sharing $1.2 million dollars of funding were awarded between these two calls. Investigators belonged to nearly all colleges on our campus as well as OSF HealthCare, UIC, University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center, and privately-owned companies.

Brian Cunningham – professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; director of Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory.

In this series, we’ll be spotlighting a different project each month and talking with the primary investigators. This month we spoke with the team behind “A single-step, 10-minute, point-of-care COVID-19 diagnostic test using Activate Cleave & Count (ACC) technology.” The team consists of Brian Cunningham, professor in the department of ECE at UIUC and former director of MNTL; Anurup Ganguli, research scientist in the department of bioengineering at UIUC; Dr. John Farrell of OSF HealthCare; Taylor Canady of the Institute for Genomic Biology at UIUC; and Shreya Ghosh, Ph.D. candidate in Cunningham’s lab.

Activate Cleave & Count technology recognizes a unique segment of the SARS-CoV-2 genome. Using newly invented ultrasensitive biosensor technology, this project addresses an important gap in the capabilities of any existing diagnostic method to enable simple and inexpensive testing from a nasal swab, allowing quick and accurate diagnosis of infected patients.

HCESC: How did the idea for your Jump ARCHES COVID-19 project come about?

BC: We could clearly see the limitations of the existing paradigm of COVID testing based on PCR in which high costs, invasive test method, and long time-to-results were key reasons why the pandemic was proving so difficult to stop.  We had an idea for a rapid (10 min) test that could be performed at room temperature in a single step on saliva, using an inexpensive desktop reader. We envisioned getting from sample to answer in less than 10 minutes without having to send samples to a lab.  We envisioned testing that could be performed more frequently in all kinds of scenarios.

HCESC: What is the effect that Jump ARCHES and ARCHES funding has had on your research direction?

BC: Our grant provided some rapid seed funds so we could purchase reagents and dedicate the efforts of a postdoc scientist.  Also, the ARCHES grant required that we find and partner with a clinical collaborator.  We got a great partner at OSF Healthcare who could arrange for clinical samples with verified PCR results.

HCESC: How do you see your project and Jump ARCHES affecting our society post-COVID?

BC: Our approach has proven to be very successful.  We filed a patent application, and a Boston-area startup is already in discussions with the University to license it.  We think that our method can be used to rapidly detect a wide array of viral and bacterial pathogens, and we are even considering it as an approach for detecting circulating tumor DNA as a cancer diagnostic test.

HCESC: Have you worked with students on your project during this time? What has that experience been like?

BC: The efforts of graduate students and postdocs have been instrumental in moving the project goals forward. Actually, their efforts are inspiring as everyone wants to make an impact upon ending the COVID pandemic and being well-prepared for future situations.

HCESC: What are your future plans with this research?

BC: We will collaborate with the startup company who is taking a license.  We will publish a peer-reviewed journal paper soon.  We are writing an NIH grant application, using the results from the ARCHES-funded project as important preliminary results that prove feasibility.

Learn more about Professor Cunningham’s lab and research here.

Read more about the Jump ARCHES COVID-19 funded projects here and subscribe to our monthly newsletter for the next installment of our ARCHES spotlight delivered to your inbox!