Meng Lu: taking label-free sensing from research to practice

Meng LuMeng Lu, who will be joining the ECpE department as an assistant professor in January 2013, believes that label-free biosensors, which use biological or chemical receptors to detect analytes, will make the leap from laboratory research to applications in a variety of disciplines, including medical screening, pharmaceutical research, and environmental testing.

“In the past decade, the photonic biosensor community has demonstrated many label-free sensing technologies, but most of them are still in the proof-of-concept stage. Eventually, I expect to see label-free technology become an indispensable tool in biology laboratories,” says Lu, due the devices’ potential portability, sensitivity, cost effectiveness, and rapid results.

Lu’s background brings together an understanding of the rigors of academic research with the commercial demands of the private sector, a key strength in translating developing technologies to commercial use.

Currently a postdoctoral research associate at the Illinois Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, Lu is leading a team of graduate and undergraduate students to develop a microscopy tool enhanced by a label-free biosensor. The microscope, Lu says, can quantify cell behaviors including adhesion, communication, migration, and apoptosis.

In the private sector, Lu served as a research scientist at SRU Biosystems in Woburn, Massachusetts, a startup company marketing a high-throughput label-free detection tool used in drug discovery and life sciences. There, Lu was responsible for developing the next generation sensor and expanding the product line.

“That was a very challenging job. In industry, you must study the market frequently to bring the product of highest quality to the broadest range of consumers, and industrial research usually requires a rapid turnover,” he explains. “In a university setting, we can afford to work on a technology that will demonstrate potential in the next ten years.”

Lu has also worked on a research project, his favorite to date, which developed a cancer biomarker detector currently being developed for point-of-care applications. The technology was created using an antibody microarray on a sub-wavelength grating substrate.

“This technology offers the possibility to analyze human blood, detect disease biomarkers at low concentrations, and provide instant results that help a doctor diagnose a disease at its early stage,” explains Lu. “The biomarkers we were looking for are traceable substances associated with certain types of diseases. With the improved sensitivity and the multiplex microarray format, the approach can provide more accurate determination of complicated diseases like cancers.”

His research group at Iowa State will develop biosensors carrying nanoscale patterns that are capable of quantifying biomolecular interactions and cell behaviors.

“My research effort at Iowa State will be dedicated to designing, prototyping, and testing optical sensor systems for high sensitivity, high throughput, portability, and resolution… In the long term, I believe the technology we invent in our lab can be eventually commercialized and become a useful tool in research and clinic laboratories,” says Lu.

Lu was encouraged to pursue his field of research by his thesis advisor and associate professor Brian Cunningham at the Illinois Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory.

“He (Cunningham) is a genius of technology with novel ideas and is also a well-known entrepreneur,” Lu says. “The way he innovates inspires me; it’s a precious experience to see how he transferred a technology from laboratory to industry.”

Lu received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Science and Technology of China in 2002 and his PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2008.