Researcher Receives Two NSF Grants to Study Artificial and Diseased Blood Using Microfluidics and Biosensors

Two grants from the National Science Foundation

By  Yaffi Spodek


Sarah Du, Ph.D., associate professor at the FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering, recently received two grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct innovative research in the fields of microfluidics and biosensors. 

“Microfluidics provides a useful platform to interface with biological systems, where engineering and materials science approaches can be integrated for replicating the microenvironment of cells while quantifying how they exert and respond to physical forces and biochemical stimuli,” Dr. Du explained. “We develop microfluidic chips and biosensors to study these processes and apply them for fundamental biological research and applied clinical research.”

Dr. Du was awarded $402,000 from the NSF to research the behavior of hemoglobin-based artificial oxygen carriers (AOCs) after entering blood circulation. AOCs are developed as red blood cell substitutes for transfusion and can be used to reduce harmful side effects, such as immunoreaction and inflammation from the donated blood, or to enable life-saving surgeries in patients when donated blood is not available. However, the development of safe and effective AOCs to replace physiological human red blood cells is challenging. 

Using a multi-scale experimental approach, the goal of Dr. Du’s project is to address several questions regarding the post-transfusion behavior of AOCs and the potential impacts on the blood vessels. “The study will provide an understanding of the biomechanical mechanisms underlying the failure of AOCs, inflammatory response, and relevant therapeutic interventions,” she explained. “The results can be used to develop safer AOC products, predict the post-transfusion performance of blood substitutes, and evaluate the effects of drug treatment on blood circulation.” 

Dr. Du was also awarded a second NSF grant of $399,000 to develop a sensor for intracellular hemoglobin analysis in single sickle cells. Sickle cell disease is an inherited red blood cell disorder that affects hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein inside the red blood cells. Sickle hemoglobin causes abnormalities in sickle cell shape and blood flow behavior, leading to various symptoms and complications. 

“A major challenge in understanding the extreme heterogeneities of sickle cell disease is the inability to measure the sickle hemoglobin within the single sickle cells,” said Dr. Du. “Our research aims to overcome this challenge by developing a microfabricated sensor that can measure the amount of abnormal sickle hemoglobin in a single cell without breaking down cell membranes.” 

The interdisciplinary project will also provide research training to women and underrepresented minority students in biosensing, cell biophysics, microfabrication, and microfluidics. The research findings and technological development will be incorporated into course development and disseminated to students at undergraduate and graduate levels.

“The microfabricated sensor being developed by Professor Du will help scientists gain a better understanding of sickle cell disease and how to treat it,” said Stella Batalama, Ph.D., dean of the FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science. “In addition, her innovative research involving hemoglobin-based AOCs will help us predict and evaluate the performance of blood substitutes, with important applications in the fields of biology and materials engineering.”