Flying High with Lab-on-a-chip Technologies
|Ul Haque's research is focused on lab-on-a-chip technologies, which are micro-devices that combine one or many laboratory analytical procedures on a small chip that is just millimeters or centimeters in size.
|Before joining Argonne, ul Haque was able to experience weightlessness aboard a NASA microgravity flight.
When Aeraj ul Haque joined Argonne’s Bio-Detection Technologies team in August, he viewed the position as a launching pad for his innovative work with lab-on-a-chip technologies.
Ul Haque, recipient of a 2010 Director’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, is already taking advantage of the laboratory’s state-of-the-art facilities and scientific expertise, with collaborative projects focused on lab-on-a-chip technologies for applications such as biomedical diagnostics and biothreat agent detection.
But this isn’t the first time ul Haque has had a unique platform to launch his research to new heights.
In 2006, he had the rare opportunity to experience zero gravity as a passenger on NASA's Weightless Wonder (AKA the Vomit Comet). Although he’s now forging ahead with new projects at Argonne, ul Haque’s trip aboard the NASA aircraft was an adventure that he’ll never forget.
"It was one of the best experiences of my life," ul Haque said. "It was a little nerve racking at first but by the second day, I was spinning on my head and doing all kinds of Matrix-type stuff."
His foray into zero-gravity was part of a research project being conducted at Purdue University. He and some fellow students submitted a proposal to NASA’s fundamental space biology program to study the gravity-dependent physiology of the Ceratopteris richardii fern spore. Their project helped shed light on an important model system for understanding how plants will grow in low-gravity environments. NASA is interested in this type of research as it pursues astronaut food source options for long-duration missions and having greenhouses on other planets like Mars.
The existing technology was too bulky to fly on the NASA plane, so ul Haque and his colleagues created the Cell Electrophysiology Lab-on-a-chip (CEL-C), which shrunk the calcium sensors to microns and the entire device down to the size of a penny.
To simulate a zero-gravity environment, the Weightless Wonder travels in a parabolic loop, going up and down repeatedly. It reaches heights of more than 30,000 ft and then plunges into a near nose dive to achieve weightlessness for small periods of time.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the chance to float around freely like an astronaut that excited ul Haque most; it was the experimental results obtained from the trip.
"The coolest part was that we were actually able to see there are unique calcium ion channels that are activated by gravity," he said. "We got a lot of valuable data."
In a more recent collaborative effort between Purdue and NASA Ames Research Center, ul Haque was part of a team working on a carbon hydrogen oxygen (CHO) biochip. This chip, which will be launched into space aboard a NASA microsatellite later this year, was developed to understand how the key parameters of cyanobacteria photosynthetic activity vary when they are grown in the low-gravity environment of space.
Exploring New Frontiers at Argonne
Daniel Schabacker, head of Argonne’s Bio-Detection Technologies team, said it was these past experiences with functional biochips that made ul Haque a great fit for his group.
"Most postdocs are very basic research-oriented, but Aeraj was the complete opposite," Schabacker said. "He had actually made something that worked, and had goals for specific deliverables."
Ul Haque’s laboratory in building 202 is still being set up and equipped for research, but his vision for lab-on-a-chip R&D will extend far beyond his own workspace to take full advantage of the many resources available at Argonne.
He is already forming collaborations with researchers at the laboratory’s Center of Nanoscale Materials (CNM). For one project, he is teaming with CNM’s Nanobio Interfaces group to develop a photoelectrochemical biochip for detecting prostate-specific antigen, the key biomarkers for prostate cancer.
"By using electrochemical signal transduction, we are aiming to shrink the associated electronics and develop a handheld-type device for point-of-care diagnostics," ul Haque said.
For another project, ul Haque is interested in fabricating biochips that incorporate nanochannels and employ the unique physical phenomenon observed in nanofluidics for biomolecule separation, concentration and detection.
This work will involve partnering with CNM’s Nanofabrication group and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
As evidenced by these early partnerships, ul Haque believes teamwork is essential to generating innovative new ideas and solving complex problems.
"Our goal is to come up with unique, impactful ideas that could never be thought up by someone working alone in a bubble," ul Haque said. "We want to burst those bubbles and work together with other scientists as much as possible."