Tony Jun Huang: Developing Lab-on-a-Chip Technologies to Improve Health Care

New faculty member Tony Jun Huang brings a wide array of microfluidic and lab-on-a-chip technologies to Duke’s proven pipeline for developing biomedical devices

By Ken Kingery

Tony Jun Huang has joined the faculty of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science in Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. A leader in the fields of microfluidics, acoustofluidics and lab-on-a-chip technologies, Huang explores ways of using sound waves to precisely manipulate and detect fluids and particles—such as cells, DNAs, RNAs and proteins—inside fluids. His goal is to develop these technologies into new diagnoses and treatments for various diseases.

Huang joins Duke from Pennsylvania State University, where he a professor and the Huck Distinguished Chair of the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics. Prior to joining the PSU’s faculty in 2005, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from China’s Xi’an Jiao Tong University and his PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Tony is a leader in his field, and I know he will build strong collaborations in both our department and the medical school,” said Ken Gall, chair of the mechanical engineering and materials science department and co-director of MEDx at Duke. “He is an enthusiastic and easy going colleague and extremely innovative researcher.  We are all very excited to have Tony join the department.”

Huang’s research fuses acoustics, fluid mechanics and micro/nano engineering to develop technologies that address challenges in biological studies, medical diagnostics and therapeutics. For example, sound waves coming from opposite directions can sandwich cells in fluidic chambers and act like a sort of tweezers. By manipulating the strength, direction and amplitude of the waves, Huang and his group can move trapped cells anywhere in the chamber in a matter of milliseconds.

While Huang has had great success developing these basic technologies in the past decade, he says he is looking forward to moving to Duke to translate them into devices held by a doctor’s hands.

“Duke has one of the best medical schools in the world. And it is exciting and extremely beneficial for me that Duke’s engineering and medical schools are within walking distance,” said Huang, noting not just the schools’ proximity but new avenues for encouraging collaboration between them such as Duke MEDx. “Together with Duke medical doctors, we can develop tools that lead to significantly more accurate diagnosis and higher-quality treatment than existing technologies.” 

For example, Huang is using sound waves to separate abnormal cells from the billions of healthy cells flowing through our veins, which could soon allow doctors to spot cancer a few years earlier than is currently possible. The same technology can also safely separate fetal cells from maternal blood to look for signs of disease as early as the fourth week of pregnancy—twice as early as is currently possible.

Other work deals with automating the handling and analysis of patients’ saliva and sputum to create an all-in-one, point-of-care diagnostic tool for asthma. This tool will also be critical in the development of personalized treatments for asthma, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases and infections.

“Diagnostics comprises only three-to-five percent of healthcare spending, yet it impacts about 70 percent of healthcare decisions.” said Huang. “Therefore, if we can build simple, low-cost and point-of-care diagnostic tools that achieve better sensitivity and accuracy than existing technologies, it will lead to drastic improvement of the overall healthcare outcome worldwide.”