Penn State, Freiburg faculty collaborate on early cancer diagnostics


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In 2019, Penn State and the University of Freiburg conducted the third year of their Collaboration Development Program, a jointly financed seed-grant-funded program designed to facilitate collaborative research and teaching projects to become sustainable, self-supporting, long-term activities. One such example is the “Ultrasensitive Liquid Biopsy for Early Cancer Diagnostics” project.

The project is led by the joint team of Tak-Sing Wong, Wormley Family Early Career Professor in Engineering, associate professor of mechanical engineering and associate professor of biomedical engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, and Manching Ku in the Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Medical Center at the University of Freiburg.

Throughout the project, Ku’s team successfully isolated genetic materials from cultured cancer cells and delivered these biological materials to Wong’s team for ultrasensitive optical characterization and detection using surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS). The Penn State team obtained preliminary results in identifying the genetic changes of DNA from the cancer cells with and without drug treatment.

Based on the preliminary data and other collaborative efforts, Ku and Wong subsequently submitted proposals to various funding agencies, resulting in securing funding from the DFG (German Research Foundation), DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), José Carreras Leukämie-Stiftung and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This allows for an exemplary continuation of the collaboration beyond university funding.

“The Freiburg-Penn State grant provided the critical seed fund and allowed me to establish international collaborations that otherwise may be difficult to accomplish,” Wong said. “I have really enjoyed working with Dr. Manching Ku at the University of Freiburg and learning from her expertise, so that I can further expand my research area to biomedicine.”

“It would have been impossible to perform such cutting-edge and crossdisciplinary research without the opportunity and seed funding from the Penn State/Freiburg Partnership,” Ku said.

“This project has been exciting and promising from the get-go, modeling the type of long-term strategic collaboration that we hoped would spring from an initial injection of funds,” said Alexandra Persiko, strategic partnerships manager in Penn State’s Global Programs. “Furthermore, the team forged ahead despite the challenges in times of COVID-19. I commend the teams for their hard work and resilience.”

The Joint Collaboration Development Program is just one of the many partnership activities between Penn State and the University of Freiburg, who signed a joint agreement in Living Materials in 2019. This agreement led to the creation of the Convergence Center for Living Multifunctional Material Systems (or LiMC2) at Penn State together with the Cluster of Excellence for Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous Materials Systems (or livMatS) at Freiburg.

For more information on the Freiburg partnership, contact Alexandra Persiko at


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