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University of Illinois, ZJU launch new center to develop novel pathogen diagnostics


Kim Gudeman, CSL

With COVID-19 infecting more than 25.1 million worldwide to date, the pandemic has underscored the need for cost-effective, accurate, and quick diagnostics.

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Zhejiang University are launching the Center for Pathogen Diagnostics (CPD) to create new detection systems that address limitations of current technologies, while leveraging the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze disease trends, analyze sensor data, and predict future outbreaks. The new devices – which will range from wearable sensors to mobile point-of-care devices to large laboratory instruments – will be able to detect pathogens that cause viral, bacterial, fungal, environmental, and food-borne illnesses.

“With COVID, we’re seeing the limitations of current best practices for virus detection,” said Brian Cunningham, the Intel Alumni Endowed Chair in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois. “It takes too long to get results, and accuracy remains a concern. Instead of chemical testing, we’re interested in using new detection modalities, like detecting intact viruses, to create faster, more cost-effective diagnostics.”

The team, which includes CSL’s Lav Varshney, is comprised of researchers at Illinois and ZJU, represents five “pillars” of pathogen diagnostic technologies. First, researchers will

Lav Varshney
Lav Varshney

study the interactions between pathogens and host cells at the molecular level, which will provide targets for new pathogen detection platforms.

Second, the team will develop sample pre-processing techniques that enable the breakdown of cells and extraction of DNA and RNA, so that viruses and bacteria can be identified. This step will help researchers create a device capable, for example, of differentiating COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) from influenza, which, while both viruses, have features that can be used to distinguish them from each other.

Researchers also will create biosensors that are more sensitive, which will lower false negatives and positives, and be able to detect different variations of SARS-CoV-2. One important direction is development of mobile smartphone-based platforms that allow test results to be obtained immediately after gathering a sample, and the fabrication of microfluidic devices that automate the pre-processing of test samples before the detection step.

Finally, the team will use AI and machine learning algorithms to analyze data that is produced by the sensors, and to monitor health trends for public health officials. For example, AI could be used to provide better modeling for disease transmission or to reduce the number of physical tests needed in a community by making inferences about infection rates from a small subset of the population.

Transitioning the technology to the marketplace will be an important component of the center as well, says Cunningham.

“The purpose of the center is to do innovative research that actively improves global public health,” he said. “Commercialization is one of the outcomes that we’re working towards.”

The Center for Pathogen Diagnostics will be located in the Holonyak Micro & Nanotechnology Laboratory. In addition to Cunningham and Varshney, the Illinois research team includes: Yang Zhao, and Xiuling Li, electrical and computer engineering; Yi Lu, chemistry; Steven Blanke, microbiology; and Xing Wang, Holonyak Micro & Nanotechnology Lab. The ZJU team includes Shaowei Fang, Qingjun Liu, Chun Zhou, Huan Hu, and Yu Lin.

The new five-year, $1.5 million center is not the first collaboration between the two universities. In 2016, The Zhejiang University-University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Institute (ZJUI) was launched on ZJU’s international campus in Haining, China, about 120 km southwest of Shanghai. ZJU-UIUC Institute faculty teach and research in broad program themes of engineering and system sciences; information and data sciences; and energy, environment, and infrastructure sciences. The Center is one of three research efforts that was just funded through the ZJUI initiative.

“The Center for Pathogen Diagnostics is another great example of the fruitful partnership that Illinois enjoys with ZJUI,” said Dean Rashid Bashir of The Grainger College of Engineering. “We look forward to working with ZJUI on solving urgent problems that are relevant to the entire global community.”