To help detect and study genetic changes in cells more quickly and efficiently, Timothy Chang, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) was recently awarded a three-year, $640,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.
Chang, working with Patricia Soteropoulos, director of the Public Health Research Institute's Center for Applied Genomics, has developed a robotic technique for getting genetic material onto slides precisely, quickly, and cheaply.
“I’m grateful to the NSF for its support,” says Chang, 44, of Montville. “In the end, this technology we’ll help with clinical diagnosis of diseases like cancer and other genetic diseases.”
The NSF grant will cover the cost of research and of developing a prototype system, Chang says. Eventually, the new process will make gene-based diagnosis of cancer and other diseases so much faster and cheaper that even small hospitals will be able to use it, Chang says. Currently hospitals send samples of genetic material to major centers for analysis, at a cost that can reach $5,000 per slide. If Chang is successful, hospitals and labs will be able to buy affordable equipment and do all the testing they want.
Chang, who with his colleagues holds several patents on the new process, has invented a new system for placing minute dots of material into a "microarray" - a grid on a slide. The key features of this microarray system include using a "smart pin." It uses a fiber-optic pin and a sensor known as a piezoelectric nano-positioning device to get the right amount of DNA material, protein or other sample on the slide.
The concept is to replace the current hollow steel pin used to squirt samples of genetic material onto a slide with the "smart pin" guided by electronic sensors. That should eliminate a major drawback of hollow-pin technology, says Chang. The hollow pin splashes the material onto the slide, much as a dot-matrix printer puts ink on paper. It also touches the glass, ultimately wearing down the pin and damaging the glass.
The smart pin can move in three directions and the sensor gives the user feedback assuring that the spots of matter placed on the slide are the right size and density. It also maintains a uniform gap distance between the pin tip and the target slide, making the process consistently reliable. Chang says this new technology, known as a fully automated microarray fabrication system, has the potential to speed up cancer research and treatment, as well as identifying other agents of disease.
"Current technology utilizes only about 20 percent of the sample on the slide,” says Chang. “The rest is wasted.” His Smart pin technology, which uses an optical fiber to deliver the genetic material to the slide, will greatly increase the amount of testing that can be done with a sample.
Chang says that because of the NJIT research, the technology to do such genetic analysis may soon be within the reach of far more institutions. Currently such research activities are concentrated in major centers. That's because the process of getting a sample of genetic material onto a slide and analyzing it costs between $1,200 and $5,000 per slide. Since 70 percent of that expense is having an outside company prepare the slide, NJIT/PHRI are developing this low-cost, high performance and fully automated system so that small research institutions and laboratories could buy the system then prepare their own slides, quickly, precisely and cheaply.
For the DNA microarray, the system deposits a droplet of genetic material as small as 0.05 nanoliter on a microscope glass slide. Because the system will be extremely exacting, it will be able to increase the number of droplets on the slide to 150,000 spots from the current limit of 40,000 spots. "That means we could fit the entire human gene sequence on once slide," he says.
Chang, summing up, says his research is part of a wave of technology developments that have scientists saying that genomic research is seeing an "industrial revolution."