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Gregory Damhorst

MD/PhD BioengineeringGregory Damhorst
NIH National Research Service Award (Kirschstein Fellowship) 2013-18
UIUC Graduate College Focal Point Grants - 2011-12 & 2014-15

As an undergraduate physics major here at Illinois, Greg Damhorst began contemplating ways to merge his interests in science and technology with his interests in community service.  “My initial exposure to lab research was in a nuclear physics group, where we were trying to build technologies that could take novel measurements of fundamental particles,” he says. “That was my introduction to technology innovation, and I got really interested in that.  At the same time, though, I’d always had an interest in serving people in need.  Over time I realized that could use my skills to combine these interests and create medical technologies for people in resource-limited settings, especially in the developing world.  That eventually became my main career ambition.”

Greg is now a student in the Medical Scholars (MD/PhD) program, where he is training to become, as he explains, a “physician-scientist at the intersection of technology and clinical service.”  His doctoral research is in the Department of Bioengineering, and his dissertation focuses on developing a low-cost, easy-to-use device for monitoring HIV infection with the goal of helping combat the spread of AIDS in the developing world through better diagnostics.  

Greg works in the Laboratory of Integrated Biomedical Micro/Nanotechnology & Applications Laboratory (LIBNA) under the guidance of Professor Rashid Bashir.  “Dr. Bashir’s group was working on designing a device to count a certain kind of white blood cell that’s essential to the immune system.  When the HIV virus infects people, it leaves them susceptible to diseases that ultimately kill them,he explains.” Monitoring these cells and the virus itself, therefore, is essential for effective treatment.  “You or I would go to the hospital where a phlebotomist would draw some blood and send it to an in-house lab.  There, a specially trained person would use a large and expensive instrument to analyze it.  But in Sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, where HIV is the worst, there might be only two or three such instruments in the entire country,” he says.

Dr. Bashir, Greg, and the rest of the research team have set out to develop a portable, inexpensive, and user-friendly device that will offer “point-of-care” diagnostics, whether in a hospital or a rural clinic.  “With our device, you prick your finger with a lancet much like the one diabetics use.  You then put a drop of blood onto a disposable cartridge that’s the size of a credit card and insert it into a device that’s the size of a toaster”, he explains.  The results are displayed quickly and can then help health care providers make on-the-spot treatment decisions.  

Earlier this year, Greg and his colleagues published a paper outlining the device in Science Translational Medicine.  “The next step is to commercialize it, and to discover other ways the cell-counting technology can improve health care,” he says. “This just scratches the surface of potential applications.  With a few modifications, it will be possible to run other kinds of tests and get a host of other measures.”  

Greg is also active outside of the lab.  Three years ago, he collaborated with other graduate students and faculty to organize a year-long lecture series on global health, funded by a Focal Point grant from the Graduate College.  That series developed into the Global Health Initiative.  “On this campus, we have microbiologists, public health experts, and clinicians with rich expertise in addressing AIDS as a complex problem.  What I can do as an engineer is only a small part of a bigger picture,” he says.   Greg and 18 other grad students and faculty subsequently spent a week and a half in Ghana learning first-hand what health care looks like in the Sub-Saharan nation.

More recently, the College of Medicine and University YMCA helped support a week-long trip to Njala University in Sierra Leone.  “We wanted to identify an existing relationship with an international partner to explore opportunities for longer-term collaboration,” he explains.  “We settled on Njala University, with which we have an active faculty and student exchange.” Several additional projects involving collaboration with Njala are now in the works, including activities supported by a second Focal Point award.

Greg is a recipient of the prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) from the National Institutes of Health, a six-year fellowship that supports students in the life and health-related sciences.  “The NRSA made it possible for me to get involved with all of these initiatives.  I’ve been able to do things that have been valuable beyond the lab and the classroom,” he says.

As for where he’ll go after graduation, he explains, “It’s all very exciting.  I don’t know yet exactly what I’ll end up doing when I’m finished with my studies, but there are a lot of opportunities.”

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