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Biology is increasingly a science that relies upon new developments in sensor engineering to provide detailed information about cell function, to perform disease diagnosis, to quantify gene expression, and to image tissue. Of the many transduction methods available for applications including point-of-care diagnostics, personalized medicine, and medical imaging, approaches based upon optics have had a tremendous impact due to a combination of non-invasiveness, robustness, miniaturization, and low cost.

This presentation will describe recent developments in the Nano Sensors Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the design, fabrication, and application of optical biosensors. For portable biosensing applications, we have demonstrated the use of the internal camera of a smartphone as a high resolution spectrophotometer for performing a variety of label-free and label-based assays. For biosensing applications in pharmaceutical research, we have developed label-free biosensors based upon external cavity lasers that are capable of detecting small molecule drugs binding to large proteins by detecting picometer-scale changes in the lasing wavelength. The talk will describe a new microscope imaging modality called “Photonic Crystal Enhanced Microscopy (PCEM)” that is capable of imaging and quantifying the strength of cell attachment to a PC biosensor surface with sub-cell spatial resolution, that is being used to study fundamental processes including chemotaxis, proliferation, and stem cell differentiation. The ability of nanostructured surfaces such as photonic crystals or arrays of metal nanodomes to generate spatially confined, high intensity electromagnetic hot spots is being used to enhance the output of surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) for drug molecules, and surface-based fluorescence assays for cancer biomarker proteins. Such nanostructures can be inexpensively manufactured from plastic, glass, or silicon to enable single-use applications, such as incorporating sensors into intravenous drug delivery tubing, or rapid multiplexed disease biomarker testing using only a droplet of serum. Finally, we have recently demonstrated the application of narrowband resonant optical filters operating in the infrared spectrum as a new histological imaging modality, called Discrete Frequency IR (DFIR) absorption spectroscopy, for rapid chemical imaging for applications in pathology and forensics.

These projects represent only a narrow slice of the potential for optics-based sensors in research and medical practice, but serve to demonstrate the tremendous potential for utilizing light-matter interactions in the life sciences.


Brian T. Cunningham, Ph.D., FIEEE

Brian Cunningham is a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he has been a faculty member since 2004. His 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). Prof. Cunningham 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. Prof. Cunningham was recognized with the IEEE Sensors Council 2010 Technical Achievement Award for the invention, development, and commercialization of biosensors utilizing photonic crystals. He is a Fellow of the IEEE and the AIMBE.

Prior to founding SRU Biosystems in June, 2000, Dr. Cunningham was the Manager of Biomedical Technology at Draper Laboratory (Cambridge, MA), where he directed R&D projects aimed at utilizing defense-related technical capabilities for medical applications. In addition, Dr. Cunningham served as Group Leader for MEMS Sensors at Draper Laboratory, where he directed a group performing applied research on microfabricated inertial sensors, acoustic sensors, optical switches, microfluidics, tissue engineering, and biosensors. Concurrently, he was an Associate Director of the Center for Innovative Minimally Invasive Therapy (CIMIT), a Boston-area medical technology consortium, where he led the Advanced Technology Team on Microsensors. Before working at Draper Laboratory, Dr. Cunningham spent 5 years at the Raytheon Electronic Systems Division developing advanced infrared imaging array technology for defense and commercial applications. Dr. Cunningham earned his BS, MS, and PhD degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois. His thesis research was in the field of optoelectronics and compound semiconductor material science, where he contributed to the development of crystal growth techniques that are now widely used for manufacturing solid state lasers, and high frequency amplifiers for wireless communication.