NSF Convergence grant could lead to game-changing medical diagnostics

A new National Science Foundation grant will fund a research partnership between the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago and industry that will combine quantum engineering with life sciences to work toward game-changing medical technologies.

Peter Maurer
Asst. Prof. Peter Maurer

The $1 million grant, part of NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program, will provide funding to Asst. Prof. Peter Maurer to work with SomaLogic on next-generation proteomics devices.

Proteomics, the study of how proteins are expressed in the body, has the potential to predict, diagnose, and monitor disease within the body. If genetic sequencing provides a blueprint of what might happen within the body over a lifetime, proteomics provides a snapshot of what is happening within the body at a single point in time.

Genetic sequencing, for example, might provide the likelihood that someone will suffer from a heart attack in their lifetime, while proteomics could provide the likelihood that someone will suffer a heart attack within the next few hours.

SomaLogic has commercialized an assay that quantifies more than 7,000 proteins in blood or urine, which it can then translate into personal health information, such as the risk of a cardiovascular event. Quantum biosensing could provide a way to scale that process up to billions of measurements per year.

Maurer and his group are developing quantum biosensing technology using nitrogen vacancy centers in diamonds. This ultra-sensitive technology, which measures nanoscale magnetic fields by controlling the quantum spin of the diamond’s defect, could be the basis for a chip-scale quantum sensor that could detect protein binding events.

To do this, researchers must figure out a way to increase the sensitivity of the quantum sensor and find the best way to observe the binding events.

Maurer and SomaLogics were one of 29 research teams selected for the accelerator program, which supports fundamental research with non-academic partners that can quickly have an impact on practice and produce societal benefits. The 2020 cohort addresses two transformative research areas of national importance: quantum technology and artificial intelligence.

Phase 1 of the grant is for nine months. The team hopes to show a proof of concept within that timeframe. They then can receive more funding to build a prototype.

The result could be an easy-to-use protein binding sensor that could be used at patients’ bedsides in hospitals, giving physicians a way to better diagnose and treat conditions. Though Maurer cautions that a quantum sensor that can do this is still 5 to 10 years down the road, he is excited and optimistic about the possibility.

“This could make a big impact on human health,” he said. “Aligning with industry is really powerful because it allows us to work with the world leader in this area. We have some of the foremost quantum researchers here at PME, so it’s an ideal partnership. We can focus on very fundamental questions that could open up new applications and have a big impact.”

The project will also leverage collaborations with the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Washington, and the University of California, Los Angeles.