By: Claudia Lutz
A new research center at the University of Illinois directed by Donald Biggar Willett Professor in Engineering Brian Cunningham aims to revolutionize diagnostics and personalized medicine, developing technologies that are at once more accurate, more affordable, and more practical for routine care.
The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) and the Grainger College of Engineering are working together to support the launch the new Center for Genomic Diagnostics (CGD), which will be housed within the IGB. The CGD will also take advantage of specialized laboratory space and equipment in Illinois’ Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Lab.
The vision for the new center begins with molecules called biomarkers that are naturally produced as part of a healthy biological state or disease process. If such a molecule is produced in detectably larger or smaller quantities in certain conditions, it can serve as the basis for a reliable test for that condition. For example, the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, which is detected in urine by home tests during early pregnancy, is a biomarker. Other biomarkers signal the presence of diseases, including some types of cancer.
“Our goal for the center is first to use genomics and bioinformatics to identify novel biomarkers,” Cunningham said. “As we seek to validate how biomarker presence and concentration changes with a specific health condition, we’re also interested in developing novel biochemistry methods for selectively detecting those molecules with methods that are simple, yet extremely sensitive.”
The concept for the center emerged from Cunningham’s research theme at the IGB, Omics Nanotechnology for Cancer Precision Medicine, which was established in 2016. The theme brings together computational, biochemical, biomedical, and engineering approaches to biomarker discovery and innovations in the realm of biomarker detection. In its conversion from a theme to a center, members are broadening their focus on cancer to include a wide variety of diseases and conditions.
“There are biomarkers for diseases other than cancer, as well as biomarkers that provide information on a person’s nutrition, environment, microbiome, and metabolism,” Cunningham said. “There are genomic biomarkers for infection and immunity, for inflammation and sepsis, and surprisingly even for environmental exposure, psychological stress, and anxiety . . . So that’s how we’re turning from a cancer group into a genomic diagnostic center, so we can consider things more broadly.”
The center already works closely with the Cancer Center at Illinois. With its expanded scope, the CGD is also growing its relationships with Illinois’ Health Care Engineering Systems Center, as well as the Mayo Clinic and Illinois Alliance.
“Our diagnostic [capability] is one of the things that allows medicine to be personalized,” Cunningham said. “So if you can have a test for a biomarker that tells the clinician something about a particular patient, they have a specific gene is being expressed, or they have a protein molecule that is present in high levels, the information can indicate that the patient is more likely to have successful treatment with a particular drug.”
The faculty and research staff that will join the center from the original IGB research theme and from around campus represent a diversity of backgrounds and expertise.
“Our team includes faculty with backgrounds that span bioinformatics, biochemistry, chemistry, biology, and nutrition, along with engineers like myself whose specialty is detection instrumentation and biosensors.” Cunningham said; the center also involves clinicians from Mayo Clinic, Carle, OSF Hospital, Stanford, and Huntsman Cancer Institute “who could give us guidance about what kind of information would better guide their treatment decisions. Our clinical partners also inform us about the shortcomings of currently available technologies—and help us target our work to where it can have the greatest clinical impact.”
The center was initiated in January 2020, and is planning a symposium to showcase its research goals later this spring.