Nicole Iverson realizes that her work in a realm that cannot be seen by the naked human eye can seem improbable and even illogical.
Iverson, assistant professor of biological systems engineering, has received a five-year, $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development Program to develop ways to use carbon nanotubes as sensors that can help in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as diabetes and myriad forms of cancer.
And through her work and outreach programs as part of this grant project, Iverson hopes to make the field of nanoscience more accessible for people, and easier to understand.
"About 30 years ago, it was unthinkable to many that there was a whole world that exists on a smaller scale than could be seen by a microscope," Iverson said. "And new technologies can be very much misunderstood. If I can explain nanoscience, and this research, to people, especially when it's sometimes counter-intuitive to what we know about science, that can open doors in so many directions."
To achieve this, Iverson's team is working to develop a new sensing platform.
A rolled-up sheet of carbon so small it's considered to be one-dimensional, Iverson said, is wrapped with a DNA strand. The outside is hydrophilic, or "water loving," and allows the otherwise hydrophobic, or "water-hating," carbon on the inside of the nanotube to remain in a body made up mostly of water.
The researchers will pair a nanotube that can detect hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) with another nanotube that detects both hydrogen peroxide and nitric oxide. Laser light will be shined on the tubes and the amount of light that is fluoresced or emitted can be measured.
"It's actually a 'turn-off' sensor, which can be confusing for people," Iverson said. "It goes back to basic physics and chemistry.
"You excite an electron, and it will hop up to the lowest unoccupied molecular orbit. Then it loses energy and gives off light as it falls back down and decays. With nitric oxide, the electron can't go up as far, so when it falls back there's not enough energy to fluoresce, so it's turning the sensor off."
By subtracting off the levels of nitric oxide, all that is left is the H2O2, which has been difficult to both detect and measure because of the lack of a real-time sensor that is orders of magnitude smaller than a human cell, Iverson said.
Joseph Stapleton, who was both an undergraduate researcher and graduate student in Iverson's lab, helped design a platform that made it possible to use this technique to find the actual concentration of nitric oxide and hydrogen peroxide with a carbon nanotube.
"It's the students making some of these advances, and that's amazing," Iverson said. "People will be using this platform to develop ways to fight other diseases. We could change medicine for the better.
"Imagine if you could develop an insulin sensor for diabetics that could continuously detect what's going on in their blood, and it only must be implanted once a year as opposed to having to prick your finger every day. Or if a person living in a rural area had something that alerts their smartphone and tell them to go to a doctor or to the hospital. It could save lives by getting us better information much faster."
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