The Power Of Chemistry In Medicine And Materials

Imagine a medicine that delivers itself automatically into the bloodstream. Or, a protective coating for airplane wings that repairs itself after being damaged.

Though differing in impact, such advancements could have the common effect of saving lives.

In his Dedman College chemistry laboratory, Brent Sumerlin envisions such advancements. He is conducting research that could make them a reality, solving problems in the very different realms of health care and engineering.

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One of Brent Sumerlin’s projects focuses on combining blood-sugar monitoring and medicating with insulin into a single mechanism, which would be a boon for diabetics.

His work has earned him national attention – a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award. The NSF award is presented to junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars in U.S. colleges and universities. Sumerlin, assistant professor of chemistry in Dedman College, will receive $475,000 over five years for two related research projects with very different applications.

With one project, he hopes to combine two aspects of diabetes treatment – blood-sugar monitoring and medicating with insulin – into a single feedback-controlled mechanism. And the challenges that mechanism could solve go well beyond its therapeutic value.

“One of the biggest problems with treating diabetes is in getting the patient to comply with prescribed treatments, and there’s a good reason for that,”Sumerlin says. “All the sticking, both for testing and injections, really starts to hurt after a while.

“If we can cut down the number of shots and of finger sticks necessary to monitor blood sugar, that would be great,” he says. “Our research may be able to aid the development of a more effective treatment strategy that depends less on constant patient vigilance.”

With the NSF grant, he and his team of undergraduate and graduate students will create specially designed vesicles – tiny spheres that are hollow on the inside and only about 100 nanometers across. The vesicles will hold microscopic doses of insulin in shells that respond when high levels of glucose are present by binding chemically with the sugar and becoming water-soluble. As the vesicles break apart within the body, they will deliver a precise amount of medication into the bloodstream.

The second project to be funded by the NSF grant involves making self-healing polymers – materials with the ability to come apart and put themselves back together again. “Potentially, we could make self-repairing coatings for airplane wings that are damaged by debris during flight,” he says.

“One of the biggest problems with treating diabetes is in getting the patient to comply with prescribed treatments, and there’s a good reason for that. All the sticking, both for testing and injections, really starts to hurt after a while.”

The fundamental chemical reactions in the polymer are basically the same as those that occur when the nanoscale vesicles rupture in the presence of glucose, Sumerlin says. “It’s the same interaction, we’re just taking it in two different directions.”

Sumerlin’s NSF award also will fund a program for K-12 school districts and community colleges to help prepare and attract underrepresented minority students for SMU chemistry internship positions. He is working with area school districts to identify academically qualified students.

The presence of younger students in Sumerlin’s lab is nothing new: He has made room for high school researchers since his arrival at SMU in 2005.

“I became interested in chemistry through a high school teacher,” says Sumerlin, who received his Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering from the University of Southern Mississippi. “He helped me get a couple of summer research opportunities at North Carolina State that really turned me on to the investigative side of chemistry. So I’m very aware of the effect those experiences can have on young people in high school.”

Kathleen Tibbetts

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