Microsensors with Macro Impact

Technological advances are about to disrupt health care and medicine as we know them. And Emma Tall Bigelow ’06 is doing her part to make it happen.

Bigelow is part of a three-person start-up, the Baltimore-based Diagnostic Biochips (DBC), whose goal is to use biomedical instrumentation and intervention to revolutionize medical treatment. The team is developing biosensor technology to monitor critical cellular-level chemical changes as they occur within the body. She is co-inventor of the technology—which uses some of the same parts found in cellphones—and she wrote the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant proposals, which garnered $1.8 million for development.

“Continuous monitoring can save time and save lives,” Bigelow says. “Any kind of sensor needs to be both sensitive and specific. The data says that we are great in both categories.”

In mid-November, Bigelow presented her team’s progress at a Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego. Her presentation there was about building awareness and looking for beta customers. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for potential applications for our sensor,” she says. “It’s exciting.”

Starting on the Path

Bigelow did not always intend to be part of a revolutionary biomedical start-up. While at Nobles, she wanted to be a doctor. At Cornell, she studied biomedical engineering. Her passion for making devices was fueled, she says, when she did research and development with medical device designer Jose Gomez-Marquez at the Little Devices Lab at MIT, where they developed the microfluidic diagnostic MEDIKit. The kit—designed for use in developing countries where medical supplies are scarce—is a Lego-like set of tools that can be assembled in numerous ways for use in diagnostic tests, to monitor chronic illnesses and otherwise support medical staff who often need to improvise. The kit made Popular Science’s “Best of What’s New” list in 2011.

She says that Gomez-Marquez was a mentor to her. “Creativity was a big piece of that work,” she says. “I got to iterate my ideas and designs.”

When Bigelow’s husband, Robin, was accepted to Johns Hopkins Medical School, Bigelow was simply looking for a job—ideally in a university research lab. But she looked at every listing with “engineering” in the title, too, she says. What she found not only changed her life; it will almost certainly improve the lives of others as well.

Firming Up the Market

The initial market for DBC’s biosensor is preclinical animal research, and it will allow researchers to use less-invasive means to continuously monitor chemical responses. When the product meets regulatory requirements for the human medical market, there are a number of potential applications: measurement of stress hormones, insulin levels, biomarkers related to heart stress, or even levels of chemotherapy drugs within a tumor. The sensor will allow for continuous monitoring as opposed to episodic and more labor-intensive options.

The device has the potential to serve developing countries well. Having lived and volunteered in Honduras, Bigelow is optimistic: “The sensor does not need to be refrigerated,” she says, “which is huge in remote areas or areas without electricity.”

Essentially, the product Bigelow and her team developed will allow researchers and physicians to monitor critical, cellular-level chemical changes as they occur within the body. Less efficient tools currently used for these purposes are imaging, microdialysis, biopsies, and blood and urine tests.

Bigelow points out that the potential financial efficiency is another exciting factor—fewer or shorter emergency room visits, for example. “I think that what we are doing can lead to better treatment,” she says, adding that great technology is no replacement for great care from a physician.

Bigelow explains that the core technology used for the sensor is based on the integration of short DNA chains called “aptamers” onto a microfabricated array of tiny sensing sites that can be implanted chronically in a targeted tissue or blood vessel. She says that she hopes the device will be able to accelerate drug and therapeutic development and improve treatment by aggregating and using better data.

As of mid-November, priorities for DBC included final refinements to the technology to ensure consistent performance, and pursuing additional funding for clinical trials and marketing.

Nobles Helps Prepare

At Nobles, Bigelow says that she exhausted the science curriculum, but that she didn’t realize how much value she would place on the quality of writing instruction, which was key to the success of her DBC project. It prepared her to write a compelling case for funding to the NIH, which kick-started work on the project.

“When I think about how many drafts of papers I wrote for Mr. Baker,” she says, “it was crazy.” She also says that travel to Vietnam, Italy and Mongolia during her Nobles years strongly influenced the goals of her professional life and her desire to use her skills to help others.

Other members of the DBC start-up team are Brian Jamison and Rob Collins, whose collective résumés include an Olympic silver medal in rowing, affiliations with numerous biotech entities and many academic degrees. The team also consults with external experts, Bigelow says, including an electrochemist at NASA, an academic at the University of Pittsburgh and an engineer with a Ph.D. in biology, who previously worked for the NIH. With that depth of pedigree, DBC’s future is in good hands.

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Microsensors with Macro Impact