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June 14, 2010 - Cunningham's Research Helps Launch New Biosensor Detection Instrument

Cunningham’s research helps launch new biosensor detection instrument

By Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE Professor Brian Cunningham founded SRU Biosystems in June 2000 with the goal of making biosensors and detection systems to be used in pharmaceutical research and diagnostic tests. 
Nearly a decade after it was founded, the company has unveiled its BIND SCANNER, a biosensor detection instrument that Cunningham helped develop. The machine has wide applications in pharmaceutical development and basic cell research.

The company’s first set of products, which were first released in the early 2000s, were geared toward detecting interactions between biomolecules. The products measured interactions between proteins and DNA and the effects of different drug compounds on those interactions. “Now the products are in use worldwide for helping make the process of drug discovery more efficient,” Cunningham said.

With the recent increase in interest in the effects of drugs on cells, SRU Biosystems has created its BIND SCANNER, a detection system that uses biosensors to study cells in a new way.   Cunningham first published a paper on this method in 2004, and an early prototype of the machine has been tested and used in the MNTL Bio-Nano Lab for the past five years. In the BIND SCANNER, cells are grown on the biosensor surface. The biosensors are designed to measure changes in reflected wavelength if something, like a cell, attaches to them. “When we measure biomolecules, they cover the whole surface like a coat of paint that is one molecule thick,” Cunningham said. “But each cell is a discrete object. When a cell lands on one place on a photonic crystal biosensor, the reflected wavelength only changes in that one spot.  We can even measure, within a single cell, individual attachment points called ‘focal adhesions’” After attachment to the biosensor, the cells are exposed to drugs or chemical molecules at different concentrations and their response is measured. They can test how cells respond to different types of treatment. 

“It’s possible to measure how a cell’s interaction with a variety of surfaces,” Cunningham said. “We can prepare the biosensor surface in different ways to mimic, for example, tissue inside the body and then measure how the cell attachment and cell proliferation changes over time. Some surfaces might allow the cell to grow very rapidly and form films, while others prevent cells from attaching.” Cell biologists at SRU Biosystems have worked closely with pharmaceutical companies to understand the cellular experiments of interest. One of the major experimental areas is finding drugs that selectively cause cancer cells to die without harming cells from healthy tissues.  The biosensor technology is used to study these effects on cells before they are studied on animals or humans.  

The product was introduced at the Society for Biomolecular Sciences Conference in April, where more than 200 pharmaceutical scientists attended a workshop that introduced the machine’s capabilities.