Bioengineering Graduate Student Developing Next-Generation Therapies for Neurodegenerative Disorders Receives Illinois Innovation Award


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The Technology Entrepreneur Center in The Grainger College of Engineering is pleased to announce the campuswide innovation award recipients for 2024. Alejandra Zeballos, a PhD student in Bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is the Illinois Innovation Award recipient for 2024.

The Illinois Innovation Award honors University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students for excellence in cutting-edge innovation or translational research that addresses real-world problems and has the potential to make a significant impact. Since 2007, $430,000 has been awarded to student innovators.

Zeballos is developing next-generation therapies for neurodegenerative disorders using CRISPR-based technologies, the molecular scissors that enable genome editing. Her research focuses on creating a gene therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal motor neuron disorder. 

L-R: Jed Taylor, Assistant Dean of Innovation and Entrepreneurship with Illinois Innovation Award recipient, Alejandra Zeballos
L-R: Jed Taylor, Assistant Dean for Innovation and Entrepreneurship with the Illinois Innovation Award recipient, Alejandra Zeballos

Zeballos has developed a single-dose therapeutic strategy to mitigate the pathology of toxic protein aggregates that arise in 97% of ALS cases. More specifically, she used RNA-targeting CRISPR effector proteins, a programmable class of gene silencing agents, to target a disease-modifier of toxicity in ALS. Her technology improved motor function, extended survival, and reduced the severity of numerous neuropathological hallmarks in a mouse model of ALS. Her work demonstrates that CRISPR-based technologies hold promise for neurologic diseases, including ALS.

Zeballos received a $20,000 monetary award from Grainger Engineering. “I am incredibly grateful to receive the prestigious Illinois Innovation Award in recognition of my work. It is a true honor to be recognized among such an accomplished group of experts and innovators,” Zeballos said. “This recognition inspires me to strive for excellence and to continue to demonstrate that the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is a leading force in creating the next-generation gene therapies for neurologic diseases that will revolutionize traditional medicine.”

Fiddler Innovation Fellowship

The Fiddler Innovation Fellowship is part of a $2 million endowment from the Computer Science alum Jerry Fiddler and Melissa Alden to the University of Illinois. The endowment supports the Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media (eDream) Institute at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and innovative students who address societal or global challenges using an interdisciplinary approach.

The eDream Institute at NCSA has awarded Nellie Haug, a student at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the $10,000 Fiddler Innovation Fellowship. She co-founded Cervicare, which is developing a novel point-of-care test to circumvent the need for conventional pap testing to increase accessibility to this vital screening procedure, particularly in underserved communities. The system is designed to be less invasive, more cost-effective, and less time-intensive than conventional pap tests.

“I am deeply honored to be the recipient of the Fiddler Innovation Fellowship this year for my continued efforts at the intersection of engineering and medicine. This award holds special significance considering the remarkable projects at CI MED and across the campus. Over the past few years, my academic and extracurricular pursuits have laid the groundwork for the success of Cervicare, a venture aimed at revolutionizing cervical cancer screening. With a focus on providing an innovative at-home self-collection system, Cervicare strives to enhance access to vital gynecologic screenings for all women,” Haug said. 

L-R: Jed Taylor, Nellie Haug, Bill Gropp, Director of NCSA, and Olena Kindratenko, Senior Research Coordinator at NCSA
L-R: Jed Taylor, Nellie Haug, Bill Gropp, Director of NCSA, and Olena Kindratenko, Senior Research Coordinator at NCSA

Illinois Innovation Award Finalists 

Akul Goyal, a PhD student in Computer Science, is developing a next generation Endpoint Protection and Response (EDR) system that promises to reduce false positives significantly, streamline alert investigation through automation, and enhance resilience against evasion techniques employed by adversaries. 

Illinois Innovation Award Finalist, Akul Goyal
Illinois Innovation Award finalist, Akul Goyal

EDR products play a crucial role in fortifying the cybersecurity defenses of enterprises. However, existing systems face inherent limitations in identifying attacker behavior, relying heavily on predefined rules for pattern matching within telemetric data. Consequently, sophisticated attackers exploit these shortcomings, leading to a surge in security breaches and resulting in record-high financial losses, estimated at $8 trillion in the United States alone. “Our research addresses this problem by redefining the rigid pattern-matching approach of EDR with a comprehensive understanding of the complete context surrounding each telemetric event. Our work introduces a novel category of provenance-based intrusion detection systems designed to efficiently handle realistic workloads at scale,” Akul said. 

Kazuma Kobayashi, a PhD student in Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering, is developing novel digital twin technologies for nuclear energy applications to enhance real time monitoring of operations and maintenance (O&M) practices at nuclear plants.

Existing O&M practices at nuclear power plants frequently face challenges such as reliance on periodic updates or offline analysis, inaccurate predictions caused by limited data or the necessity of manual intervention, the constant requirement for adjustments, vulnerability to sensor degradation, and difficulties in understanding and trusting predictive outcomes. These issues obstruct proactive and well-informed decision-making.

L to R: Kazuma Kobayashi with his adviser, Professor Syed Bahauddin Alam 
L-R: Illinois Innovation Award finalist, Kazuma Kobayashi with his adviser, Professor Syed Bahauddin Alam 

Kobayashi’s innovative technology aims to integrate the latest AI-driven digital twin with advanced machine learning techniques, aligning with research initiatives from the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). 

Jongwon Lim, a PhD student in Bioengineering, is developing a rapid and precise diagnostic technology for bloodstream infections that bypasses blood culture, a method that can take as many as five days to provide precise results. Blood-borne infections, such as sepsis and hepatitis, cause high mortality, and their rapid detection remains a significant diagnostic challenge. Timely and informed administration of antibiotics within the three hours of onset of symptoms can significantly improve patient outcomes.

Lim’s innovative diagnostic technique, called “biphasic,” integrates blood drying with isothermal amplification. This innovation significantly reduces the time, cost, and complexity of instruments needed, cutting down the diagnostic time for sepsis from a day to just 2.5 hours. This efficiency is achieved by eliminating the need for lengthy blood culture steps, thereby speeding up the process of prescribing targeted antibiotics and enhancing patient outcomes.

Alexander Smith, a Carle Illinois College of Medicine student, is working on research that focuses on the development of an innovative surgical device for traumatic brain injury treatment in underserved settings. More than 5 million people each year suffer a traumatic brain injury that would benefit from surgical treatment. Approximately half of those patients die because their care providers lack access to the resources needed to stabilize their condition. His device is a low-cost real-time navigation system that will guide any operator through a basic neurosurgical stabilization procedure called ventriculostomy, which will provide life-saving intracranial pressure relief for these patients in remote settings.

Fiddler Innovation Fellowship Finalists

Diego Calderon, a graduate student in Computer Science, is developing a low cost and ultra-low power device to deploy a large network of temperature and humidity sensors to map heat in cities and address climate change. 

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Diego Calderon, Fiddler Innovation Fellowship finalist

Several urban areas report higher temperatures than their rural surroundings, a phenomenon known as the heat island effect. This, combined with rising temperatures and frequent heat waves, is increasingly harmful to air and water quality. Current methods to identify these islands include fixed weather stations and sensors mounted to cars to record air temperature across a fixed path. However, these methods are expensive to deploy and maintain. To address this limitation, Diego Calderon has engineered low cost and ultra-low power devices. 

Jermaine Chambers, a Carle Illinois College of Medicine student, is transforming the treatment of cirrhosis-induced ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen) by developing a mobile robotic arm integrated with advanced ultrasound and autonomous capabilities.

Paracentra, an innovation at Carle Illinois College of Medicine, aims to revolutionize the treatment of cirrhosis-induced ascites through a high-tech approach to paracentesis. Traditionally, for safely draining fluid from the abdomen and relieving discomfort in cirrhosis patients, this procedure requires manual ultrasound guidance. By automating the process, Paracentra not only improves the efficiency and accuracy of paracentesis but also extends its reach, particularly benefiting patients in rural or underserved areas who might otherwise face delays in receiving care.

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This story was published April 24, 2024.