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.