CLEMSON — Guigen Zhang, a Clemson University professor in both bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering, has received a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

Awarded through a program to support innovative global health research, the grant will help fund Zhang's work to create low-cost diagnostic tools for doctors in developing countries.

“Our work is designed to develop highly sensitive, specific and direct-molecule-interfacing biosensors that are inexpensive to build, simple to use and rugged to deploy,” Zhang said.

Inexpensive, simple and rugged medical tools are important in remote, underdeveloped areas. That's the reason Zhang's research turned to development of tiny “biosensors” to replace more expensive and delicate mechanical and electrical devices.

Zhang, who also is deputy director of Clemson's Institute for Biological Interfaces of Engineering, conducts research on the “electrical double layer,” a natural phenomenon that scientists have long recognized, but only recently begun to explore for its engineering potential. Zhang intends to take advantage of “nanostructures” — tiny objects roughly on the scale of atoms and molecules — to help doctors diagnose disease.

“We seek to exploit the fundamental science behind the capacitive effect of the electrical double layer as an analytical principle,” Zhang said. “This is very much on the frontiers of basic science and medical diagnostic engineering, but the result could be extremely beneficial for physicians in the field and the people in regions with limited resources.

“It is a novel idea, and very exciting, because it could also lead to a groundbreaking sensing paradigm for meeting many of the pressing biomedical diagnostic and rapid screening needs, including rapid cancer screening and DNA sequencing,” he said.

Zhang's grant is part of the Gates Foundation's fourth funding round of Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative to help scientists around the world explore new and largely unproven ways to improve health in developing countries. From almost 2,700 proposals, just 78 grants were provided to scientists in 18 countries on six continents.

“The winners of these grants show the bold thinking we need to tackle some of the world's greatest health challenges,” said Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation's Global Health Program. “I'm excited about their ideas and look forward to seeing some of these exploratory projects turn into life-saving breakthroughs.”

“Dr. Zhang's work will clearly impact global patient care and provide a more sensitive approach to disease diagnosis,” said Martine LaBerge, chairwoman of Clemson's bioengineering department. “It follows the university's tradition in bioengineering and biomedical research innovative and pioneering solutions for clinical care.”

Grand Challenges Explorations is a five-year, $100 million initiative of the Gates Foundation to promote innovation in global health. The program uses an agile, streamlined grant process; applications are limited to two pages, and preliminary data are not required. Proposals are reviewed and selected by a committee of foundation staff members and external experts, and grant decisions are made within about three months of the close of the funding round.

Applications for the fifth round of Grand Challenges Explorations are being accepted through May 19. Grant application instructions, including the list of topics for which proposals are currently being accepted, are available at