AIM Photonics Awarded $5.27M under Rapid Assistance for Coronavirus Economic Response (RACER) Grant Program

Funding to support the development of inexpensive, point-of-care testing and diagnostics using photonic biosensing technology

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently announced that AIM Photonics has been awarded $5,273,779 as a part of an overall grant package totaling more than $54 million for high-impact projects for research, development and testbeds for pandemic response. The funding, which was provided by the American Rescue Act, will support projects at eight manufacturing innovation institutes in the Manufacturing USA network, including two projects sponsored by AIM Photonics using silicon nitride sensor technology.

These projects, which include the development of the first point-of-care disposable integrated photonics diagnostics system as well as a disposable ”lab-on-a-chip” testing solution, will reduce the need for expensive equipment and specialized expertise, and more rapidly provide quantitative diagnostics in order to better inform care decisions, particularly in the critical moments after a patient arrives at a care facility.

“Sensors are a critical technology in the developing photonics industry,” said David Harame, chief operations officer of AIM Photonics. “Both of these projects will leverage and extend AIM Photonics’ photonic sensor manufacturing and packaging capabilities to develop prototypes to help get these critical solutions into production as rapidly as possible.”

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer concurred. “As lead negotiator of the American Rescue Plan, I’m proud that funding I helped secure will be used by AIM Photonics and the University of Rochester for cutting-edge, potentially lifesaving new technology,” he said. “This research will not only help us continue to attack the COVID pandemic head-on, but it will also boost jobs and better prepare us for emerging viruses moving forward. I’m delighted that these efforts will take place in Rochester and across New York State, and I look forward to seeing the nationwide impacts this work will have on our communities.”

The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were a stark reminder of the importance of diagnostics in combating the rapid advance of a new pathogen. Understanding who is infected, who among those infected is most likely to require hospitalization, who has successfully acquired immunity via vaccination or previous disease, and how new viral variants impact immunity are all critical components of a pandemic response strategy.

At the outset of the pandemic, AIM Photonics—working in collaboration with the academic community, the U.S. Department of Defense, and industrial laboratories—responded to the urgent need by developing a new “disposable photonics” approach to coronavirus diagnostics. The system uses a tiny (1 x 4 mm) silicon nitride ring resonator photonic sensor chip paired with a plastic micropillar microfluidic card to passively process a human whole blood or serum sample, enabling a one-minute detection and quantification of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies with excellent sensitivity and specificity.

While an exciting advancement, this system was engineered for use in centralized clinical laboratories, effectively limiting its use by placing it well beyond the reach of doctors’ offices, rural clinics, and resource-limited environments. A point-of-care disposable diagnostics system aims to make the technology more accessible.

“We are confident that the principles that enable photonic biosensing for the clinical laboratory can also be applied to point-of-care diagnostics,” said Ben Miller, professor of Dermatology, Biomedical Engineering, Biochemistry and Biophysics, Materials Science, and Optics at the University of Rochester Medical Center and principal investigator on the disposable point-of-care sensors project.

Miller also recognized how close engagement with clinicians and community organizations in underserved communities in the early stages of development is critical to ensure that targeted solutions are developed in a manner consistent with their needs.

“For our system to have the greatest impact, it must address the needs of communities underserved during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as those in more affluent and technologically-connected environments,” he said. To that end, Miller noted, the New York State Department of Health and other researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center will provide expertise on immunology and on state-wide needs for diagnostics.

In addition to its rapid diagnostics capabilities, the disposable photonics sensor platform offers other promising applications, such as the ability to develop and test assays predictive of severe disease. A key question that caregivers were unable to answer at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was which patients were most likely to develop severe disease, requiring intensive intervention. Recent research suggests that there are specific biomarker proteins that can be used to predict coronavirus infection severity, leading the team to further develop an assay for these proteins on the platform.

The $4.9M project also involves a diverse team of collaborators from the University of Rochester Medical Center, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Infinera, Spark Photonics, and Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics.

Another grant of $299K was also awarded to AIM Photonics to further develop the technology required for a disposable, lab-on-a-chip solution to COVID-19 testing that eliminates the need for costly reagents or complex, large, power-consuming hardware while also offering low sensitivity to temperature variation. A biosensor platform with these characteristics has been preliminarily demonstrated at the proof-of-concept stage, led by Dr. Kevin Lear, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Colorado State University (CSU) and co-principal investigator on the project.

This unique approach combines the benefits of evanescent sensing with integrated photonics and biochemistry to reduce device size, weight, power, and cost, while enabling a scalable platform upon which other measurements can be performed. It does not require external instrumentation, such as spectrometers or tunable lasers, and therefore can be made much smaller than technologies with such requirements.

Dr. Joe Kramer, Engineering Lead at Intelligent Fiber Optic Systems Corporation (IFOS) and co-principal investigator of the project believes this “lab-on-a-chip” approach will be immensely useful as it will be able to quantify both viral load and antibody titers, requires little to no training to operate, is small enough to be broadly distributed by postal service or other delivery methods, and can be configured to electronically send data to a user’s phone or to healthcare providers.

William Price, IFOS’ Director of Government Business, considers the project an encapsulation of integrated photonics’ benefits to individuals and to the U.S. technology ecosystem broadly.

“This industry-academia collaborative project illustrates both the power of photonics to improve people’s lives, and the key enabling role AIM Photonics plays in providing high-tech small businesses like ours cost-effective access to world-class integrated photonics prototyping capabilities that accelerate the journey from concept to commercialization, and from idea to impact,” Price said

Original source: AIM Photonics

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