Professor Luyao Lu Receives NSF CAREER Award for Automated Lab-on-a-Chip Platforms

March 12, 2024

Professor Luyao Lu

As biomedical researchers work to advance the field of pathophysiology, referring to the study of abnormal changes in body function due to disease processes, they are exploring the potential of in vitro live cells to revolutionize our understanding of human physiology and function. In vitro live cells, such as stem cells, are powerful cell models for replicating human pathophysiology that enable detailed analysis of cell function, cellular mechanisms of action, and responses to interventions and therapeutics. 

Stem cells are widely accepted and growing in commercial availability due to the ease of deriving patient-specific cells. However, limited techniques exist for a comprehensive investigation of the properties of such cell models over time. Biomedical engineering assistant professor Luyao Lu has received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Develop Program (CAREER) award to work to address these technical challenges and develop automated lab-on-a-chip platforms to overcome them.

“The automated lab-on-a-chip platforms we are developing are tools that allow for chronic monitoring and control of live cell properties at meaningful levels of spatiotemporal precision inside a controlled cell culture environment with minimal human exposure,” Lu stated.

In the project, “Optoelectronic lab-on-a-chip technology for high-content automated multiparametric physiology analyses of live cells,” Lu aims to develop and validate lab-on-a-chip platforms as a technique for automated, long-term, and comprehensive investigations of multiple live cell properties under controlled cultivation conditions. He will accomplish this through innovations in emerging materials, circuit design, micro- and nano-fabrication, bioMEMS, software development, system integration, and biology.

To achieve this overarching goal, Lu’s study is split into three research objectives. The first objective is to explore functional electronic and optoelectronic components for high-precision multiparametric recording and modulation of cell activity. Lu will systematically study the structure-property relationship of these materials and components to optimize their resulting performance. The second objective centers on the creation of this device, the compact and scalable lab-on-a-chip platform, using the component technologies developed.

Lu’s lab-on-a-chip platform incorporates advanced hardware and software designs that enable independent control of each modality, fast measurement, and data analysis. By doing so, he will eliminate the need for significant technical expertise to manually analyze the high-content data generated, dramatically saving time, reducing error, and improving the accuracy of experiments. To responsibly translate his innovation to society, Lu’s third objective is to validate the platforms via rigorous benchtop measurements against commercial systems and automated on-chip screening of neuron cell physiology and neurotoxicity of drugs.

NSF CAREER awards are five-year grants awarded to early-career faculty to support them in building a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research. Lu will seamlessly integrate the two in his project by training female and underrepresented students of GW Engineering in multidisciplinary bioelectronics research and coordinating outreach efforts to K-12 schools. Outreach plans include active participation in the research process by local high school students and the design of pedagogical demonstration kits to educate K-12 students on bioelectronics as well. Lu will also introduce new course components on optoelectronic biomedical systems for future GW Engineering undergraduates to learn about this emerging technology.

This groundbreaking research not only signifies significant progress for the biomedical engineering community but also holds tremendous potential for the use of in vitro live cells. The technology and knowledge generated by Lu’s work marks crucial strides towards the next generation of lab-on-a-chip health monitoring and modulation systems. This platform’s development will simplify operations and open up new opportunities in various programs of biomedical research, addressing the high demand for automated lab-on-a-chip devices with reduced human exposure in areas such as elucidating disease mechanisms, drug testing, personalized medicine, and organs-on-chip.

On a broader scale, the successful creation of an automated lab-on-a-chip platform will greatly facilitate their translation for physiology investigations, disease modeling, and pharmacology research. This transformative technology extends its impact to crucial areas dealing with dangerous pathogens, such as COVID-19, toxic substances, and radioactivity also due to reduced human exposure. Overall, Lu’s innovative research is set to revolutionize live cell analysis and advance our understanding of human pathophysiology and function by enabling automated long-term investigations.