Professor-student partnership leads to medical testing startup

Natalie Briggs, a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering, started a company with her faculty adviser, Joshua Robinson. The company, Qorius2D, creates slides for medical testing. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sir Alexander Fleming was searching for a cure-all wonder drug when he found it — penicillin — in the discarded remains of his Petri dish experiments.

While experimenting with cathode tubes, physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays that could pierce through most materials, including skin.

Two researchers at Penn State are hoping their accidental discovery could join the list of some of science’s most welcome surprises that revolutionized the way we approach medicine and medical testing.

Joshua Robinson, associate professor of materials science and engineering (MatSE), and Natalie Briggs, doctoral candidate in MatSE, were exploring novel approaches to creating thin-film metals comprised of just a few atoms. They were probing the optical and electrical properties when something else stood out: The films were really good at detecting individual molecules. That meant they could be used for all sorts of assessments, from spotting pathogens and toxins to routine medical testing.

Once the researchers received results from colleagues in the Department of Chemistry and Department of Physics, who found these materials were orders of magnitude more uniform and efficient than commercially available products, they knew they had something. 

So they created Qorius2D, a startup company formed between Robinson and Briggs that looks at the commercial viability of using 2D metals for medical testing. The company received $75,000 in support from Invent Penn State, Ben Franklin Technology Partners and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences to help launch its specially engineered microscope slides for the optical detection of chemical or biological molecules.

“When you take everyday metals used in manufacturing and shrink them down to just a few atoms, these metals have unique properties,” Robinson said. “They have really interesting optical properties for sensing chemical and biological molecules. In our early research, we are finding that these materials are 10 to 100 times better than what’s currently out there for optical detection of molecules.”

Robinson said they’ve proven the material improves signal strength for identifying the influenza virus and detecting a blue dye called copper phthalocyanine. Now they are benchmarking their material using Raman spectroscopy to measure how it stacks up against commercial products across a wide range of molecules to establish the first, truly robust surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy substrate.

Here’s how it works: When a molecule comes in contact with a material, it gives off a signature vibration that can be seen under a microscope.

“A lot of these molecules in nature have certain signatures but you’re limited by your ability to detect them easily,” Briggs said. “But certain materials can amplify these vibrations.”

Because Qorius2D’s materials increase this amplification uniformly across the entire surface, the researchers said it makes it easier and more accurate to rapidly see molecules. It also opens the door for detecting other molecules that have thus far evaded existing identification. 

In the next year, Robinson and Briggs will continue to benchmark their new material while probing its other strengths. Long term goals for Qorius2D include showing proof of concept for spotting a wide range of molecules while developing cost-effective manufacturing methods.

Robinson said funding will allow them to validate the biological sensing and expand it to testing for 20 molecules. He said this research will shine a light on the metabolic processes in our bodies and how this technology can improve our understanding of human health.

“Having resources like Invent Penn State is very advantageous. It allows us verify the science so we have a very strong foundation before we make that leap into a full-fledged business,” Robinson said. “It minimizes risks and a lot of the technology hurdles that may have to come within a technical business.”

Last Updated December 10, 2019