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Nanotech projects make top 10

Two teams of Northeastern students exploring new frontiers in nanotechnology are among the 10 finalists in a selective national competition aimed at developing engineering research projects that improve primary health care.

The competition is sponsored by the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT), a consortium of teaching hospitals, research laboratories and engineering schools in the Boston area, including Northeastern. Finalists in the CIMIT Student Prize for Primary Healthcare earn $10,000 to advance their concepts. The top three teams, to be announced in June, will receive additional funding to continue their research, with the top team earning $150,000.

One Northeastern team, consisting of bioengineering doctoral students Matthew Dubach and Kate Balaconis, has proposed developing biocompatible, biodegradable sensors that would regularly monitor sodium levels in the blood. Fluorescent nanoparticles injected into the skin would enable patients to track their sodium levels in a minimally invasive manner, compared to the current method of pricking the skin to draw blood. Dubach and Balaconis are supported on Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Nanomedicine fellowships.

The project proposal cites the dangers of hypernatremia, an electrolyte disorder often affecting the elderly that increases the likelihood of falling caused by a low concentration of sodium in the blood. The work builds off of the research of Heather Clark, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences and the students’ mentor on the project.

“There’s a gap between academic research and clinical trials, and we’re excited about this award because it provides the opportunity to translate our work to human use,” Dubach said.

The other Northeastern team includes doctoral students Asanterabi Malima, Jaydev Upponi and Cihan Yilmaz, in electrical engineering, pharmaceutical sciences and mechanical engineering, respectively. They propose developing a highly sensitive biosensor smaller than a grain of sand that would use nanoparticles to recognize extremely low levels of disease markers—such as cancer markers—in the bloodstream, providing major benefits to patient care through early detection.

“The unique thing about this project is that at the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN), we can assemble millions of nanoparticles at a time,” Malima said.

The project stems from a $1.2 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation for Northeastern researchers to develop a nanochip that could be used as a biosensor and drug delivery system. That interdisciplinary project was led by CHN Director Ahmed Busnaina; Vladimir Torchilin, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology and Nanomedicine; and Barry Karger, director of The Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis.

CIMIT, which Northeastern joined last year, enables inter-institutional collaboration between scientists, engineers and clinicians, and funds early-stage, high-risk ideas in the first phase of innovation.
Northeastern’s excellence in use-inspired, interdisciplinary research in areas such as nanomedicine, sensing and imaging, and robotics will advance the consortium’s mission to solve global challenges through the intersection of health care and technology. The collaboration also builds upon Northeastern’s research priorities of health, security and sustainability.

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