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Molinaroli College of Engineering and Computing

  • Chang Liu stands outside the Swearingen Building.

Liu receives NSF Early CAREER award to improve testing of infectious diseases

Nanopore technology could help diagnose novel diseases like COVID-19

Chang Liu, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Computing, has received a 2021 Early CAREER Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of his proposal to develop improved diagnostic testing technologies. His findings are expected to improve the accuracy with which infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and COVID-19 are diagnosed.

CAREER awards are given by the NSF to support early career development of non-tenured faculty members. Liu’s award is $500,000 for a five-year study.

“It is truly an honor for me to receive this award. It is a significant opportunity for my career and the furtherance of this research,” Liu said.

Liu is working to develop new nanopore diagnostic testing technology that will enable ultrasensitive detection and quantification of infectious disease markers for a reasonably low cost at the point of care. He expects that the new technology will improve accuracy beyond current point-of-care (“rapid”) testing and possibly lab-based testing technologies.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has underscored the importance of diagnostic testing technologies, with rapid and accurate quantification of biomarkers at the point of care being fundamental to the control and management of infectious disease outbreaks. While existing technologies are inexpensive and easy to use, store and transport, their simplicity causes a significant loss of sensitivity and specificity compared to lab-based diagnostic tests.

Liu said, “The technology I’m developing is more sensitive than technology being used in clinics now. The ultimate goal is to develop testing that is more accurate—meaning fewer false positives and false negatives. We are trying to increase both sensitivity and specificity simultaneously.”

Liu focused his post-doctorate work on diagnostic technology for infectious diseases, beginning with tuberculosis. Since joining the UofSC faculty in 2018, he has conducted similar studies with HIV alongside Prisma Health and its infectious diseases department chair, Dr. Helmut Albrecht. When COVID-19 surfaced, the team began applying the technology to COVID-19 antibody tests. 

The technology, Liu explains, is a platform that can be readily modified with minimal optimization as soon as new diseases and biomarkers are identified for rapid deployment in clinics and at the point of care. He said, “The most important aspect of this research, in my opinion, is that we are not only addressing tuberculosis, HIV and COVID-19 with improved diagnostic testing, but also developing a platform technology that can easily be modified for new infectious diseases. COVID caught us. We hope that, with successful development, this technology will be there the next time we need it.”

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The activities pursued by early-career faculty build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

Chang Liu is an assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering and Computing. His research interests are in point-of-care diagnostics for resource-limited settings, translational biomarkers and biosensors to enable personalized medicine, and nanostructure-based tools for fundamental biochemical studies.

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