Team of UMD, Texas A&M Researchers Receive $50,000 NSF Grant to Explore Commercial Potential of Rapid Pathogen Test

A team of researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park and Texas A&M University was awarded a $50,000 grant through the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program to explore the commercial potential of their research on a rapid, selective, and sensitive screening tool for pathogens.

The team includes Assistant Professor Kevin Daniels, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Institute for Electronics and Applied Physics and the Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices, UMD, Soaram Kim, Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Center for Remote Health Technologies and Systems, Texas A&M, UMD Ph.D. students Michael Pedowitz and John Herboczek, and Texas A&M Ph.D. student Scott Phillips. UMD I-Corps instructor Jainaba Ceesay is mentoring the team.

Pictured, From left to right: inventors John Rzasa, Soaram Kim, and Kevin Daniels. Photo by Sage Levy.

Through the grant, the group will participate in the NSF’s National I-Corps Teams program starting in March. National I-Corps Teams is an intensive, seven-week training that guides participants in engaging with prospective customers, partners, and others in the ecosystem to evaluate the commercial potential for turning their technologies into successful products, processes and services.

The research group has developed an innovative biosensor that uses quasi-freestanding epitaxial graphene (QEG) on silicon carbide (SiC) to detect extremely low concentrations of pathogens rapidly through changes in electrical resistance.

"Our system is designed to detect pathogens with high sensitivity and speed, using a fabrication process that is both simple and cost-effective,” said Kim. “This underscores its significant potential for use in mobile diagnostics, particularly for identifying various emerging viral diseases in potential future pandemics."

The results, through testing, have been promising.

“We’ve been able to detect a single piece of SARS-CoV-2 within a second,” said Daniels. “The material we use enables us to outperform not just PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) and rapid tests, but other biosensors as well.”

The group’s biosensor can quickly detect SARS-CoV-2 and its variants in both saliva and breath samples, at low concentrations. Their biosensor could also be adapted to detect other pathogens and biomarkers such as influenza, bacteria, RNA/DNA and protease/peptides.

Work on the biosensor was supported by collaborators Heeju Ryu at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, Rachael Myers-Ward at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Don Milton, Professor of Environmental Health, Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH), School of Public Health, UMD, and Sheldon Tai, Assistant Research Professor, School of Public Health, UMD. 

The graphene material used in the biosensor came from NRL.

The research group completed a regional I-Corps cohort at UMD in April 2021.

“It was fantastic,” said Daniels. “We learned a lot about the sensor in terms of its marketability that we weren’t thinking of. For instance, someone could walk into a doctor’s office and breathe on our device, and it could tell you if you have COVID-19, or the flu. We were also thinking that our device could be used in places such as airports. But, through I-Corps, we discovered additional interesting places where our biosensor could prove useful.”

The research team received a $50,000 Medical Device Development Fund (MDDF) grant in spring of 2021 to work with John Rzasa, Chief Engineer for the Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices, to develop a prototype pathogen detection device.

“We had this sensor but we didn’t have electronics to interface with it,” said Daniels. “Rzasa helped us develop the electronic prototype units that we use today for most of our testing. Those units include both a touch screen and potentiostat. Rzasa continues to work with us as we create the next generation of our device.”

Pictured: prototypes of the team's biosensor. Photo by Sage Levy.

The University of Maryland filed a patent application for the team's technology at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. A published version of the patent application can be found here.

In June 2023, the research group received a $1.34 million grant from Flu Lab LLC to develop specific biosensors to detect influenza. This work is in collaboration with Milton, as well as Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Gabrielle Neumann at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The NSF National I-Corps Teams program will help Daniels and his team decide whether to move forward with commercializing their technology.

“The biggest thing is understanding where our customer base is,” said Daniels. “We have a rough idea, but we would like confirmation before we jump into starting a company. We want to make sure we are not coming out with a device that people do not want.”

Success, Daniels said, will be relative.

“We would love to start this company and have our technology be widely adopted,” he explained. “But if we can keep one person from getting sick or dying from something, then fantastic. Our job is done.”