Duan Wins DARPA Young Faculty Award

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By Liz Sheeley

Assistant Professor Chuanhua Duan (ME, MSE) is a 2018 recipient of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award (YFA).

Duan’s award will help fund his research into replicating cell-to-cell communication. He is one of the 35 YFA awardees this year and will receive close to $500,000 from DARPA over the next two years to pursue his project and he could receive an additional $500,000 based on the progress of the project.

Assistant Professor Chuanhua Duan (left) receives his Young Faculty Award from DARPA program manager, Michael Fiddy. Photo courtesy of DARPA

“Cells talk to each other by releasing and receiving specific chemicals. If you can communicate with cells in their own language then you can create new interfacing devices to control or interact with cells to keep all the cell functions intact,” says Duan. “DARPA wants a new technology that can perform chemical-based communication between an artificial device and real cells with sufficient temporal and spatial resolution.”

Duan’s research focuses on understanding ion and molecule transport in nanochannels, and the development of new fluidic devices or approaches to control or improve transport for applications in healthcare, energy systems, and thermal management. Current methods to study and recreate cell-to-cell communication rely on electrical or optical signals, but cells actually communicate through chemical signals, which is what Duan’s method is based on.

The base of his proposal comes from a snag in another project— in the presence of unexpected large nanoparticles, a nanopore he was using to study cancer-related biosensing was acting like a voltage-gated ion channel, a ubiquitous channel in cell membrane that cells use to release signaling chemicals to communicate with each other. These channels are controlled by electrical signals, but then once triggered, the channels open up and chemicals are released by pure diffusion. By using a 3-D nanofluidic device with an individually-addressable nanopore array as a stand-in for voltage-gated ion channels, Duan could re-create a more natural way cells communicate. Rather than the current methods of using electrical signals to directly stimulate cells in a non-specific and uncomfortable way, he can use electrical signals as triggers to talk to cells at specific locations and times. This new method would be more authentic and may pave the way for communication with any type of cell, resulting in advances in prosthetics, neural interfaces, and sensors.