Electrical engineering student works on diagnostic device for cancer

Leilei Shi, Ph.D. candidate, helped create device to more easily detect disease using biofluids

Leilei Shi, a University of Cincinnati electrical engineering doctoral candidate, has focused his research on how to isolate and characterize exosomes — biomarkers of cancer and other diseases — using a low electric current. The tool offers the potential for noninvasive, point-of-care screening and early diagnosis with a small amount of saliva or blood. Leyla Esfandiari, associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering, has advised Shi in the Integrative Biosensing Lab.

Shi was named Graduate Student Engineer of the Month by UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

What drew you to UC for your doctoral studies?

The most important reason is that UC provides top-ranking research resources and course work for students. UC also provides graduate students with professional academic trainings and helps students reach success with ample resources.

You have two degrees in materials engineering. Why did you choose to study electrical engineering?

headshot of Leilei Shi

Leilei Shi. Photo/provided.

Electrical engineering is a bridge to connect theoretical knowledge and usable products in the real world. Throughout history, electrical engineering jobs have played a huge role. From Thomas Edison's invention of the electric lightbulb to Philo T. Farnsworth's invention of television, pioneers in electrical engineering have largely shaped how we live today. 

Since the work of these great pioneers, the field of electrical engineering has grown tremendously, expanding into a number of specialized categories and having a profound impact on other disciplines. I want to be one of the people in this research area changing the world, so I choose electrical engineering as my field of study.

Describe your research work. What is the end goal?

The end goal of my research work is to develop a simple yet powerful tool for disease early diagnosis in the clinical settings based on exosome characterization. 

My research work is focused on developing a new method for rapid isolation and non-invasive characterization of exosomes. Exosomes are nanoscale membrane vesicles produced by almost all kinds of cells, and they carry a wide variety of functional proteins and nucleic acids which can reflect the status of their originating cells. Exosomes act as vehicles for molecular cargos in intercellular communication and thus have been considered as circulating biomarkers for early diagnosis and therapeutics in liquid biopsy. 

Despite these remarkable attributes, the rapid isolation and non-invasive detection of exosomes have been a challenging task due to their small size and complex nature. Therefore, we developed a novel insulator-based dielectrophotetic device comprised of an array of micropipettes to trap exosomes from conditioned cell culture media and various biofluids, such as plasma, serum and saliva. The device is capable of isolating exosomes from small sample volumes within 20 minutes under a relatively low direct current due to the force balance of three electrokinetic forces, including dielectrophoretic, electrophoretic, and electroosmotic forces, at the close proximity of micropipette tips. In addition, this device was then combined with embedded micro-electrodes to differentiate and characterize exosomes from different cellular origins. 

Electrical engineering is a bridge to connect theoretical knowledge and usable products in the real world.

Leilei Shi, UC electrical engineering student

What are some of your most valuable experiences at UC?

One of the most impactful experiences during my time at UC is immersing myself in a new culture. As an international student, I gained so much by studying and living in the U.S. I become more understanding of different people, better connected to the lives they live, and I also made so many great friends coming from other places of the world.

What are the accomplishments of which you are most proud?

I have been the first author of four high-impact peer-reviewed journal articles and second and third author of three journals including the Lab on a Chip and Scientific Report. Currently, I have been working on two other manuscripts which are expected to be published by the end of this fall semester. Also, I have been the first author and presenter of seven international and national conferences including the Biomedical Engineering Society and Biophysical Society. I have also maintained excellent grades while balancing excellent performance in research and teaching. 

What are your future plans after completing your degree?

After graduation, I will work as an assistant professor at Carolina University. Through this experience, I plan to pass the experiences and knowledge I have obtained here to my future students. I also plan to continue to do my research on biosensing and to become an independent researcher. 

Featured image at top of Leyla Esfandiari, associate professor, and Ph.D. students, Leilei Shi, center, and Ann Wolf, right. Photo/Corrie Mayer/CEAS Marketing.

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