Professor Wins $750,000 Engineering Prize for Mobile Medical Tool

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Sept. 3, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas — Yuebing Zheng, a mechanical engineering assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, was selected for the prestigious Beckman Young Investigator Award.

The $750,000, four-year award will support Zheng’s efforts to develop a powerful, palm-sized device that could bring health care monitoring and diagnostics to underserved areas while advancing study in life sciences.

Zheng will build a first-of-its-kind tool, called Virtual Plasmonic Tweezers, which will use touch-screen technology to view and precisely control the movement of cells and biomolecules on a chip. The invention could lead to portable devices for point-of-care medical diagnosis and study in remote areas.

The Beckman Young Investigators program “provides research support to the most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences, particularly to foster invention of methods, instruments and materials that will open up new avenues of research in science.” Zheng, who was one of seven researchers nationally to receive the highly competitive award, was recognized at a ceremony in early August.

“The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation’s fellowship is a tremendous honor and a validation of Dr. Zheng’s exceptional work,” said Jayathi Murthy, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “This device has the potential to transform health care accessibility and lead to groundbreaking research methods in life science.

To operate the device, samples of blood or cells will be put on a chip and then placed inside the device. Scientists will use the device’s touchscreen, which resembles an iPhone, to direct the beams of light and manipulate cells. Zheng’s Virtual Plasmonic Tweezers rely on optical light and smart materials to manipulate cells and biomolecules on a chip. The device will use a surface-propagating light, known as surface plasmon waves, to amplify the forces of light that can control and move the cells from location to location.

Zheng’s next step is for his lab to develop suitable surface materials and design the most efficient system for steering the light beams that control cells.

The tool holds tremendous potential for point-of-care diagnostics for medical professionals, Zheng said. In the field of tissue engineering, it is important to control cell distances and cell orientation to achieve the desired performance. Similarly, the device’s ability to manipulate cells will be useful for biologists and other scientists who are interested in how cells respond to different biomolecules.

Eventually, Zheng hopes to bring low-cost, mobile health care monitoring and diagnostics to underserved areas.

“There is an inaccessibility of very sophisticated equipment in certain countries,” Zheng said. “The Virtual Plasmonic Tweezers will give people greater access to a diagnostic tool to monitor their health.”

Zheng is planning to have the first Virtual Plasmonic Tweezers prototype completed by the end of the Beckman fellowship in four years.

Zheng research group:

For more information, contact: Sandra Zaragoza, Cockrell School of Engineering College of Engineering, (512) 471-2129.

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