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Testing the Toxicity of Nanomaterials

Researchers Win $25K Grant to Commercialize Technology

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Assoc. Prof. Joel Therrien works with a student in the lab.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Electrical Engineering Assoc. Prof. Joel Therrien, along with Profs. Susan Braunhut of Biology and Kenneth Marx of Chemistry, has developed a “nanocanary,” a living-cell-based biosensor capable of continuously monitoring the physiological state of the live cells contained within it.

The team joins two other groups of University researchers — led by Assoc. Prof. Sanjeev Manohar of Chemical Engineering and Asst. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan of Plastics Engineering — that have won three of this year’s nine grants from the UMass Commercial Ventures & Intellectual Property (CVIP) Technology Development Fund. The rest of the awardees are faculty members from the Amherst, Dartmouth and Worcester campuses.

The grants, which amount to $25,000 each, are given by the UMass President’s Office to professors with the best chances of turning their technologies into commercial success.

From Carbon Nanotubes to Cancer Cells

“Our biosensor has a wide range of applications, from toxicology testing of engineered nanomaterials to customized therapeutics and drug discovery,” says Therrien. 

“In testing the toxicity of carbon nanotubes, for example, since the sensor can directly detect adverse effects on living cells, we are able to identify the threshold concentration at which carbon nanotubes lead to the cells’ death,” he says. “The sensor can also be used to test the response of normal and cancerous cells to drug therapies. In the future, this technology may help guide oncologists in selecting the most appropriate drug for a cancer patient. We also see the potential for this to partially replace animals in testing drugs and other products.”

Initial funding for the team’s research came from the U.S. Army Research Lab and the National Science Foundation.

“We will use the CVIP funds to develop beta versions of the sensor that can be given to external groups for trials,” says Therrien.