College of Engineering Researchers Receive Trailblazer Awards from National Institutes of Health

College of Engineering researchers Jinglei Ping, mechanical and industrial engineering, and Jun Yao, electrical and computer engineering, have received National Institutes of Health (NIH) Trailblazer R21 Awards to pursue their promising emerging research.

NEWS Jinglei Ping
Jinglei Ping

The Trailblazer R21 Award provides recipients with $400,000 over three years to pursue research programs of high interest to the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).  A Trailblazer award allows new and early-stage investigators to pursue research projects at the interface of the life sciences with engineering and the physical sciences. The projects may be exploratory, developmental, or high-risk high impact, but all applicants are expected to propose research approaches for which there are minimal or no preliminary data.

NEWS Jun Yao
Jun Yao

Ping’s project, “Highly Integrated Nucleic-Acid Analysis Using Graphene Bioelectronics,” has the long-term goal of developing micro-total microRNA (small single-strand RNA molecules) detection technology that can be used globally for rapid, point-of-care clinical diagnoses in resource-limited settings. In particular these next-generation sensors will be capable of providing accurate diagnosis results for diseases such as CoVID-19, HIV, and cancer.

Conventional microRNA-detection techniques such as qPCR, microarray and next-generation sequencing are centralized and require specialized setup, multiple manual procedures, highly trained staff, hours to days to provide results and are expensive. “As a result, they are difficult to be implemented at home, clinics, and settings with restricted access to a central laboratory,” Ping says. “I will push back the frontier of the already high-sensitivity sensors based on graphene by orders of magnitude and integrate sample processing to graphene sensors,”

The result would be that “a microRNA blood test — from sample loading to readout generation — can be achieved in minutes on a miniaturized device with the size of a quarter,” he adds.

Yao’s project, “Bioinspired Mechanogating Biosensors for Real-time Biodetection,” aims to develop nanowire biosensors that are more resilient to body fluids and can attain better sensing resolution and specificity.

“If we succeed, we will then investigate the potential of applying the sensor technology to the early detection of tick-borne diseases,” Yao says. Working with Guang Xu of the microbiology department — an expert on tick-borne disease diagnosis — Yao says the goal is to potentially improve what’s lacking in current diagnostics.

“It’s a high-risk, high-impact project fitting into the award’s aim,” he says.