SMU chemist Alex Lippert has received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, expected to total $611,000 over five years, to fund his research into alternative internal imaging techniques.
NSF CAREER Awards are given to tenure-track faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research in American colleges and universities.
Lippert, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Science, is an organic chemist and adviser to four doctoral students and five undergraduates who assist in his research. Lippert’s team develops synthetic organic compounds that glow in reaction to certain conditions. For example, when injected into a mouse’s tumor, the compounds luminesce in response to the cancer’s pH and oxygen levels. Place that mouse in a sealed dark box with a sensitive CCD camera that can detect low levels of light, and images can be captured of the light emanating from the mouse’s tumor.
“We are developing chemiluminescent imaging agents, which basically amounts to a specialized type of glow-stick chemistry,” Lippert says. “We can use this method to image the insides of animals, kind of like an MRI, but much cheaper and easier to do.”
Lippert says the nearest-term application of the technique might be in high-volume pre-clinical animal imaging, but eventually the technique could be applied to provide low-cost internal imaging in the developing world, or less costly imaging in the developed world.
But first, there are still a few ways the technique can be improved, and that’s where Lippert says the grant will come in handy.
“In preliminary studies, we needed to directly inject the compound into the tumor to see the chemistry in the tumor,” Lippert says. “One thing that’s funded by this grant is intravenous injection capability, where you inject a test subject and let the agent distribute through the body, then activate it in the tumor to see it light up.”
Another challenge the team will use the grant to explore is making a compound that varies by color instead of glow intensity when reacting to cancer cells. This will make it easier to read images, which can sometimes be buried under several layers of tissue, making the intensity of the glow difficult to interpret.
“We’re applying the method to tumors now, but you could use similar designs for other types of tissues,” Lippert says. “The current compound reacts to oxygen levels and pH, which are important in cancer biology, but also present in other types of biology, so it can be more wide-ranging than just looking at cancer.”
“This grant is really critical to our ability to continue the research going forward,” Lippert adds. “This will support the reagents and supplies, student stipends, and strengthen our collaboration with UT Southwestern Medical Center. Having that funding secure for five years is really nice because we can now focus our attention on the actual science instead of writing grants. It’s a huge step forward in our research progress.”
Lippert joined SMU in 2012. He was a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Berkeley, from 2009-12, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 and earned a bachelor’s in science at the California Institute of Technology in 2003.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” NSF is the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.
— Kenny Ryan