Month: August 2022

Yu Lei Invents Low-Abundance Biomarker Detection Platform for Early Diagnosis

from UConn Today

Dr. Yu Lei
Dr. Yu Lei

Yu Lei, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, has invented a new platform that can perform high-sensitivity readings for a variety of disease biomarkers.

In the 1970s, scientists invented the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Since then, ELISA has been the standard for detecting biomarkers.

Biomarkers are molecules present in the body that indicate the presence or severity of a disease. For example, autoantibodies can help detect autoimmune diseases, or a peptide known as amyloid-β can indicate Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the major limitations for ELISA is that if there is a low concentration of the molecule of interest, it cannot detect it. Lei’s invention addresses this problem by adding two amplification steps to ELISA’s process.

“We wanted to bridge the need for ultra-sensitivity, and also compatibility with the existing plate-based platform,” Lei says.

ELISA works using a “sandwich” of two antibodies specifically designed to capture/detect the biomarker of interest between them. One of these antibodies has an enzyme attached to it that will produce a readable signal when it encounters the substrate.

Lei introduced a two-step amplification to the ELISA reaction. Lei first added a tyramide signal amplification (TSA) process to amplify the signal of a low abundance biomarker. In Lei’s platform, the TSA step anchors numerous biotins onto the immunocomplexes. Lei then introduced the reporter enzyme alkaline phosphate (ALP) conjugated with streptavidin, which attaches to the biotins through the strong interaction between biotin and streptavidin.

Dr. Lei's Research
Lei’s technology advances traditional ELISA kits through the addition of two novel steps. (Yu Lei Provided image)

Lei added an ELFA-saturated ELFP substrate that ALP breaks down to produce a fluorescent signal. These molecules that precipitate through the system to form a readable layer consisting of fluorescent needles that a microscope captures as a series of images and counts. This fluorescent microneedle count corresponds to how much of the biomarker is in the sample.

“That’s the beauty of the system using ELFA-saturated ELFP substrate and counting-based method, we achieved rapid detection and at the same time no matter your initial number of target molecules their precipitating time is starting from the same point,” Lei says.

Lei successfully demonstrated that his process was able to achieve a resolution of 50 to 60 picograms per milliliter. This is about 20 times more sensitive than traditional ELISA using the same commercial ELISA kit.

Lei published his findings in the March issue of Analytica Chimica Acta.

This advancement could be extremely useful for early-stage detection of diseases and treatment.

“A lot of disease detection occurs when symptoms are already onset,” Lei says. “That biomarker concentration is already very high. So then, if we can detect at a very low concentration, we can capture the earliest stage and treatment may be more effective.”

Lei says the next step for this technology is to smoothly integrate it into conventional plate-based ELISA systems. This would allow the process, which currently takes about four hours for low-abundance biomarker detection, to be much faster by using advanced imaging systems.

Designing a Lighter, Denser Fuel Cell

from UConn Today

Fuel Cells
Fuel cells are a promising direction for cleaner energy, and a team of UConn researchers is working to improve their design (Adobe Stock).

Fuel cell technology is continuously evolving as renewable energy and alternate energy sources become an increasingly important means of reducing global dependence on fossil fuels. Planar fuel cells, a prevalent design, can be bulky, have compression issues, and uneven current distribution. Other drawbacks include problems with reactant gas transport, excess water removal, and fabrication challenges associated with their design.

A team of UConn researchers led by Jasna Jankovic, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering, has devised a novel design for a tubular polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell that addresses those shortcomings and improves on existing tubular PEM fuel cell designs, most of which take a planar PEM fuel cell and curl it into a cylinder.

Jankovic and two grad students, Sara Pedram and Sean Small, took a more holistic approach that rethinks tubular fuel cell design from the ground up. Their disruptive, patent-pending concept could potentially have nearly twice the energy density of other tubular PEM fuel cells, be 50 percent lighter, have a replaceable inner electrode and electrolyte (if liquid), a leak-proof configuration, and require fewer precious metals.

That’s a big deal, says Michael Invernale, a senior licensing manager at UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services (TCS) working with Jankovic to bring the concept to market. Much of the effort to improve fuel cell design, he says, has focused on the end user instead of the greater good.

“A fuel cell with refillable components is a kind of solution that does that,” says Invernale.  “An airline relying on this technology would have more incentive to rebuild a component. Right now, it might be cheaper to replace the whole unit. That’s really where this design shines. The features of the design are green and sustainable and renewable.”

Fuel cells are essentially refuelable electrochemical power generation devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, heat, and water. Each type is classified primarily by the kind of electrolyte it uses. Planar fuel cells are constructed using sandwich-like stacks of large, rectangular flow field plates made of graphite or metal, which account for about 80 percent of their weight and 40 percent of their cost. UConn’s design uses a single tube-shaped flow field that reduces its weight by half.

Jasna Jankovic
Dr. Jasna Jankovic

The concept is still in discovery and has I-Corps and Partnership for Innovation (PFI) funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program was created to spur the translation of fundamental research to the marketplace, encourage collaboration between academia and industry, and train NSF-funded faculty, students, and other researchers in innovation and entrepreneurship skills.

Participating research teams have the opportunity to interview potential customers to learn more about their needs. Jankovic and her team conducted some 60 interviews during a UConn Accelerator program in early 2022 that helped them size up the market and answer important questions about whether or not to start a longer process, make the product themselves, or license the technology to another company.

“It was very useful to get feedback and guidance from people in industry” Jankovic says.

Jankovic led the team as PI, with Pedram and Small, acting as Entrepreneurial Lead and Co-Lead respectively. Lenard Bonville, the team’s industrial mentor, will support the team with his decades of industrial experience. The team will conduct another set of 100 interviews with industry to discover the market for their product and get guidance on its final design. NSF-Partnership for Innovation (PFI) funding will then be used to develop a prototype and pursue commercialization.

Fuel cells have a wide range of applications, from powering  homes and businesses, to keeping critical facilities like hospitals, grocery stores, and data centers up and running, and moving a variety of vehicles, including cars, buses, trucks, forklifts, trains, and more. Jankovic’s team is working toward obtaining a full patent on their design and thoroughly testing the concept. In the short term, they are focused on commercializing the technology and attracting potential partners.

Jankovic envisions creating a fuel cell roughly the size of a AA battery however, as a scalable and modular technology, it could be scaled-up to any practical size. The cylindrical shape would allow for more fuel cells to occupy the same amount of space as those in use now and be cheaper to manufacture, Invernale said. Jankovic views her fuel cell design as a replacement for Lithium-Ion batteries.

Jankovic said her seven years in industry before coming to UConn convinced her there was a need in the market for a new and better fuel cell design.

“From that experience, I knew that planar fuel cells had a few issues,” she says. “I kept asking around, and I said, ‘let’s do it and find out yes or no.”

Dr. Cato Laurencin Publishes Breakthrough Report on Rotator Cuff Regeneration Treatment

from UConn Today

Cato Laurencin
Dr. Cato Laurencin

A new way to regenerate muscle could help repair the damaged shoulders of millions of people every year. The technique uses advanced materials to encourage muscle growth in rotator cuff muscles. Dr. Cato Laurencin and his team reported the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) August 8th issue.

Tears of the major tendons in the shoulder joint, commonly called the rotator cuff, are common injuries in adults. Advances in surgery have made ever better rotator cuff repairs possible. But failure rates with surgery can be high.  Now, a team of researchers from the UConn School of Medicine led by Laurencin, a surgeon, engineer and scientist, reports that a graphene/polymer matrix embedded into shoulder muscle can prevent re-tear injuries.

“Most repairs focus on the tendon,” and how to reattach it to the bone most effectively, Laurencin says. “But the real problem is that the muscle degenerates and accumulates fat. With a tear, the muscle shrinks, and the body grows fat in that area instead. When the tendon and muscle are finally reattached surgically to the shoulder bone, the weakened muscle can’t handle normal stresses and the area can be re-injured again.

Dr. Laurencin along with graduate student Nikoo Shemshaki worked with other UConn Connecticut Convergence Institute researchers to develop a polymer mesh infused with nanoplatelets of graphene. When they used it to repair the shoulders of rats who had chronic rotator cuff tears with muscle atrophy, the muscle grew back. When they tried growing muscle on the mesh in a petri dish in the lab, they found the material seemed to encourage the growth of myotubes, precursors of muscle, and discourage the formation of fat.

“This is really a potential breakthrough treatment for tears of the rotator cuff. It addresses the real problem: muscle degeneration and fat accumulation,” Laurencin says.

The next step in their work is studying the matrix in a large animal. The team looks forward to developing the technology in humans.

This work was funded by NIH National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Grant No. DP1AR068147 and National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Grant No. 1332329.

IMS Welcomes Lisa Conant and Christina Tamburro

As research conducted by UConn IMS faculty members creates more funding opportunities, the need to expand administrative services to support the increased funding has led IMS to hire two new administrative team members.  Both Lisa Conant and Christina Tamburro come to UConn IMS from within the University.

Lisa Conant
Pre-Award Grants and Contracts Specialist Lisa Conant

Lisa Conant previously served as Pre-Award Grants and Contracts Specialist for the Sponsored Program Services (SPS) section of the Office of the Vice President of Research (OVPR). Lisa honed her financial skills in the non-profit social services and municipal sectors. She also provided her financial expertise to The Jackson Laboratory. An avid writer and editor in her personal time, Lisa also loves trying new international recipes. She served her community in Coventry, CT, as an elected town council member for four years and currently serves on the town’s Human Rights Commission. Lisa hopes her years of grants and research administration experience and skills will help support and grow IMS’ already incredibly impressive success in winning research grants and contracts. “My goal is to serve as a resource for IMS faculty and staff in all things pre-award,” Lisa says.

Christina Tamburro
Post-Award Grants and Contracts Specialist Christina Tamburro

Christina Tamburro comes to us from the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) where she served briefly as Business Operations Specialist before returning to her passion for finance here in IMS. Prior to her time in CAHNR, Christina served as a Post-Award Grants and Contracts Specialist for SPS.  Christina loves cooking and baking.  She won second prize in the Connecticut State Agricultural Fairs statewide apple pie contest in 2005. Additionally, Christina describes herself as a “history nut” with particular interest in the American Civil War and colonial New England. She hopes to contribute additional expertise, enthusiasm and understanding to the grant management process here at IMS.  “I am looking forward to working closely with grant holders, sponsors, and connections throughout the university to extend IMS’ outstanding reputation,” Christina says.

Please join all of us at IMS in welcoming Lisa and Christina.

Department of Energy Early Career Award Recipient Yuanyuan Zhu

Yuanyuan Zhu
Dr. Yuanyuan Zhu is the only Connecticut recipient of the DOE Early Career Award for 2022.

Established in 2010, the DOE Office of Science Early Career Research Program supports the individual research programs of outstanding scientists early in their careers and stimulates research careers in the disciplines supported by the DOE Office of Science: Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR), Biological and Environmental Research (BER), Basic Energy Sciences (BES), Fusion Energy Sciences (FES), High Energy Physics (HEP), Isotope R&D and Production (IP), and Nuclear Physics (NP).

Among the 83 university and DOE national lab researchers announced as recipients of the award for 2022, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Yuanyuan Zhu is the only Connecticut researcher to receive the honor.  IMS News asked Dr. Zhu about her research and the award.

In 2019, you were appointed Director of the UConn DENSsolutions InToEM Center for in-situ TEM research at IPB Tech Park.  You have since had papers published related to the research the Center is conducting.  As we are seeing more and more evidence of the effects of climate change, how do you hope your research at the InToEM Center will assist in solving some of the problems we are now dealing with?

Yes, we have published a couple of papers since 2019 using the in-situ environmental TEM gas cell. Here you can find our full publications: .

It’s a coincidence that the DENSsolutions’ ETEM gas cell system is named as “Climate”, because it involves gas environment for chemical reactions in a microscope. Another example is their liquid cell system, which is called “Stream” simply because the reaction stimuli involved.

There are many materials researches related to energy and environment, including climate change, that can benefit from the in-situ ETEM research. One immediate example is heterogeneous catalysis used for natural gas conversion and H2 production. And the fusion energy materials research funded by the DOE ECA is another good example.

Congratulations on receiving the Department of Energy’s Early Career Award for 2022.  What are your hopes for your research on Understanding Thermal Oxidation of Tungsten and the Impact to Radiation Under Fusion Extremes?

Fusion energy holds great promise for replacing fossil fuels for 24/7 baseload electrical power. We are excited that the DOE Early Career Award will fund our in-situ ETEM study to directly address a well-known fusion safety hazard concerning aggressive high-temperature oxidation of plasma-facing material tungsten. We hope to gain fundamental understanding of tungsten degradation in case of air-ingress scenarios that could inform the best strategy for responding to accidents, and could guide the design of advanced W-based materials that better preserve divertor integrity for even more demanding DEMO fusion extremes. Simply put it, we want to make the operation of fusion energy systems safer and more reliable.

You have several Ph.D. candidates under your advisement.  How do you hope to influence these young scientists?

Our research group provides a welcoming, supportive and inclusive working environment to drive personal success for each Ph.D. researcher. Through the first-hand work on such research projects closely to clean energy and sustainability, I believe our Ph.D. students will gain confidence and skills in research and also develop a solid sense of social responsibility.

We are seeing many more women represented in STEM.  What advice would you give to young women who may be considering a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?

We need everyone in STEM, and anything is possible if one follows his/her/their passion. Research is fun but progress is built on failure and resilience.


Meet NDSEG Fellow Mason Freund

Mason Freund
Ph.D. student Mason Freund has aerospace science at the root of his research.

Since its inception in 1989, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship has been awarded to only 4400 students.  In that time, over 65,000 have applied.  The highly competitive fellowship, sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Army Research Office (ARO), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), was established by the U.S. Congress to increase the number of U.S. citizens receiving doctoral degrees in science and engineering disciplines of military importance.

Materials Science and Engineering Ph.D. candidate Mason Freund has been named a recipient of this prestigious fellowship.  IMS News spoke with Mason about his early interests in science and the catalysts and decisions leading to his being named a NDSEG Fellow.

You earned your Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in aerospace engineering.  In your pursuit of your Ph.D. your focus remains on aerospace science.  When did you begin to be interested in aerospace science and what about aerospace science keeps you engaged? 

I think there’s always been some interest in aerospace science starting from playing with toys and enjoying sci fi movies as a kid. This steered me towards spaceships and planes and slowly evolved into interest in the sciences and engineering. Finally, being able to learn about aerospace engineering during my undergrad seemed to bring everything together. And now being a fellow under the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) I will be able to interact with the field on a deeper level. I am constantly learning new information and techniques that keeps the learning experience engaging but there are also always new discoveries and ideas that keep pushing the known boundaries to something that is better, faster, or stronger. I think those new discoveries and possibilities will keep me engaged for a long time.

How/when did you begin to tie materials science into your interest in aerospace science?

The mechanical engineering curriculum requires an introduction to materials science. I didn’t know what the field of materials science was or could lead to, but I quickly became interested in learning more about the field. I decided to go for a minor and take courses that could add another dimension to my curriculum and benefit my aerospace science interests.

Congratulations on being named a 2022 DoD NDSEG Fellow.  How did you come to apply for the NDSEG Fellowship and what was your reaction after learning you had been selected for the fellowship? 

My advisor (Volkan Ortalan) made me aware of some different fellowships early on in my graduate studies. After doing more research over the course of last fall, I applied to a few different fellowships. Then came a long 4-6 month wait to April when the results were expected to come out. I checked my email one night at the end of March and was surprised to see an email from NDSEG. I was then even more surprised and excited to realize it was an acceptance letter. It was the first one I got back, and I wasn’t even expecting a letter for at least another few days. I was very excited and slightly caught off guard, but it made my night and my week.

Tell us about your research and its short- and long-term implications for real-world applications. 

My group is primarily a microscopy group. We spend most time on transmission electron microscopes (TEM) in addition to other instruments and techniques. Our lab has a special ultrafast TEM which allows us to investigate reactions and dynamics at very short time scales. Specifically, my research will take advantage of these capabilities to investigate reaction dynamics of nano energetic materials to better understand behaviors from these materials as well as nanoparticle enhancement at the necessary timescales.

This work is useful for further insights into nano energetics and optimization for use in propellants and other related technologies as well as directly relating to programs within the AFOSR. The field of nano energetics plays a role in many propulsion applications as well as high power linear actuators. There are also possibilities for use in miniature applications such as micro or nano satellites. This research will provide a more fundamental understanding of the behaviors and can lead to better control, optimization, and performance of the technology.

After earning your bachelor’s degree, you chose to continue your graduate studies at UConn.  What was the catalyst for your decision?

As I mentioned, I started my minor and was taking MSE courses throughout my time in undergraduate studies. In one of the MSE courses the professor was Dr. Ortalan who is now my advisor. He asked me what I was planning on doing after graduation. I knew that I might want to go back to graduate school eventually, but I was also initially looking for jobs in industry. He mentioned about his open position for a graduate student and about the work that would be required but also the benefits and investment that it would be for my future. This really was the catalyst for my decision. I would have taken it either way but graduating in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic and hearing about difficulties in job hiring made the decision even easier.