Friday, July 8, 2011

End of Week 1

Today marks the end of our first week in the Research Experience for Teachers program at Boston University. This program is designed to introduce teachers to current topics in technology so that we can bring them back to our students. This summer we are working in the Photonics Center at BU with particular focus on Biophotonics. Photonics is the study of everything we know about light: what it's composed of, how we can detect light, how we can use light as a sensor, and much more. Therefore, biophotonics is an area of research where light is used to sense, detect, and analyze biological materials such as tissues, cells, fluids, and other materials that relate to fields like medicine, agriculture, and environmental sciences.

The particular group of researchers that I worked with was headed by Professors Bennett Goldberg and Mark McComb. The main goal of their research is to develop a technology that can quickly and efficiently analyze a biological sample to detect the presence of a biomarker of a particular disease so that doctors can immediately begin treatment of the patient, potentially increasing their chances of recovery. Now I bet you're wondering what a biomarker is. The term biomarker encompasses a broad range of substances but the basic concept is that a biomarker is an indicator of a particular biological state. For example, a recent study showed that children infected with HIV had much higher levels of a protein called Interleukin-6 (IL-6) than non-infected children. We can then say that very high levels of IL-6 would be a biomarker of HIV infection. Now, if we use the technology that Professors Goldberg and McComb are developing, we would be able to quickly identify the amount of IL-6 in the blood sample from a child. If the level of IL-6 is very high, we can assume that the child is infected wit HIV and begin immediate treatment.

While I just gave you  general overview of what we are diving into, I spent the week learning and understanding the physics, photonics, and biology behind this research. This includes the type of equipment that we will be using. One of them is IRIS, or the Interferometric Reflectance Imaging Sensor. This machine uses different wavelengths of light to detect differences of height as small as nanometers!! In case you don't know, a nanometer is extremely small; it is only one-billionth of a meter! Think of it this way, a strand of hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide so it's pretty difficult to imagine 1 nanometer. What's amazing is that this piece of equipment can distinguish the difference from one nanometer to the next. When you use IRIS to analyze a sample, that machine produces a set of data that will indicate the differences in height throughout the sample. These height differences indicate whether or not a specific target substance is present or not in the sample. We can then use a formula to get the amount of target substance is present. Once we know this amount, we take the sample to another machine called MALDI-TOF, a type of mass spectrometer. This particular spectrometer is a Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization - Time Of Flight spectrometer. The general concept of this piece of equipment is that we can place the sample in the machine and blast the sample with high energy in the form of a laser to produce even smaller pieces of our target substance. As these pieces are produced from the blast, they fly into contact with a detector that can determine the mass and charge of the pieces. Based on this value, we can identify what the target substance actually is. Identifying target substances like this used to require  process that took several months. With MALDI however, it only takes a few minutes!

Being able to work with amazing technology such as this is an incredible opportunity. Stay tuned for more mind-blowing information to come!

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