Di Carlo was among 16 recipients in this year’s class of Packard Fellows.
The Fellowship Program was established in 1988 and arose out of David Packard’s commitment to strengthening research groups that are the heart of university-based science and engineering programs. By supporting unusually creative professors early in their careers, the Foundation hopes to develop scientific leaders, to further the work of promising scientists and engineers, and to support efforts to attract talented graduate students into university research in the United States. Fifty universities each nominate two faculty members for a fellowship. Out of this pool, only 16 were selected. Each Fellow will receive an unrestricted research grant of $875,000 over five years.
Di Carlo will apply the unrestricted grant to conduct research on using the mechanical properties of a cell, rather than molecular properties, as clinically useful and low-cost indicators of a patient’s health. This approach takes advantage of microscale fluid physics to sequentially align, squeeze, and measure thousands of cells per second to potentially identify cancer, infection, and transplant rejection.
“I am honored to be selected for a Packard Fellowship,” he said. “The long term financial support provided by it will help us to extensively explore this exciting emerging area of using cell mechanics as a useful diagnostic marker. I am eager to dive into this endeavor.”
“This prestigious honor from the Packard Foundation is a befitting recognition of Dino’s accomplishments,” said Vijay K. Dhir, dean of UCLA Engineering. “His work in microfluidics applications holds great potential in several areas in healthcare and already he’s made big strides in this field.”
Identification of the particular cells present in blood, urine, as well as fluid that builds up in the cavities around the lungs and gut often provide diagnostic information to doctors concerning the disease state of a patient, whether it be a viral infection or invasive cancer. Currently, these cells are identified by doctors by using a combination of cell properties, including overall size, size and shape of internal cellular structures, and the presence of particular proteins within or on the surface of a cell. These approaches require processing of samples by technicians as well as “labeling” of the cells with specific reagents that can add cost to obtaining the diagnosis.
With the support of the Packard Foundation, Di Carlo hopes to develop a lower cost “label-free” approach to identify cells based solely on how cells change shape when squeezed. Previously, scientists had shown that the deformability of a cell – the ability to change shape with an applied force — reflected the particular state of a cell. For example, cancer cells were found to become softer as they become more invasive, and stem cells were found to become stiffer as they differentiated down a route towards a cell type in a mature tissue. These scientists laboriously made manual measurements one cell at a time in a research lab, and could not measure the tens to hundreds of thousands of cells that would be present in a fluid sample obtained from a patient. The ability to use these changes in mechanical properties to reduce the costs of medical diagnosis has been hampered by the lack of a fast and automated approach to measure thousands of cells.
“The real hope is to develop an automated approach to take advantage of the differences in varied physical properties amongst cells to enable inexpensive clinical diagnostics,” Di Carlo said. “We have been pioneering precision techniques to engineer and control cell positions in flowing fluids and we are taking advantage of this expertise to stretch and analyze cells quickly using purely fluid-induced forces.”
Di Carlo is developing a technology to measure the mechanics of thousands of cells per second in an automated fashion. The technique relies on the ability to flow cells one by one at high rates into a fluid wall and capture the changes in cell shape upon hitting that wall with a high-speed camera that can snap over 100,000 photos per second. Software then automatically identifies the cells and extracts information concerning the changes in cell shape that can be reported back to the end user, such as the doctor, in an easy-to-read format.
Di Carlo anticipates the approach, if successful, could find broad applications in cases when the physical properties of cells reflect disease state, as in screening for cancer, identifying infection, or monitoring transplant patients for rejection.
In the past year, Di Carlo has also received a Young Investigator Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health.