Health & Medicine Researcher news

Chemistry’s Sumerlin named 2010-2012 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow

Brent Sumerlin, associate professor of Chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College, has been named a 2010-2012 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow. This exceptionally competitive award will provide Sumerlin a grant of $50,000 over two years to support his research, some of which could lead to the use of nano-scale polymer particles to automatically deliver insulin to diabetics.

Click here for a video of Sumerlin and graduate student Jennifer Cambre talking about Sumerlin’s research.

The Sloan Research Fellowships are designed to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists and scholars of outstanding promise. These two-year fellowships are awarded yearly to 118 researchers in recognition of distinguished performance and unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.

The fellowship places Sumerlin in the company of some of the most distinguished scientists in the country. Thirty-eight Sloan fellows have been awarded the Nobel Prize in their respective fields since the fellowships were established in 1955.

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Researcher news

LED inventor named SMU Distinguished Alumnus

Gary E. Pittman received the 2008 Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest award SMU can bestow upon its former students. Pittman and other recipients were honored at the November DAA celebration.

Pittman is a multifaceted researcher, whose discovery has transformed the electronics world and our daily lives. While working at Texas Instruments in the 1960s, he and a colleague co-invented the light emitting diode. More commonly known now as the LED, the invention led to formation of the multi-billion-dollar optical communications industry.

anPittman.jpgOther applications of LEDs include traffic lights, railroad crossing signals, exit signs and digital clocks. Their major contribution is for illumination, leading to a great reduction in energy needs.

In 1953, Pittman earned his B.S. degree in chemistry with honors from SMU, where he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He later took graduate courses in electronics. He has lectured and conducted seminars throughout the United States and in Mexico and London.

After leaving Texas Instruments, Pittman served as vice president for manufacturing at Spectronics Inc., director of military business at Honeywell Optoelectronics and president of SPC, Inc.
Gary E. Pittman

He currently is a consultant in statistical thinking, engaged in research including novel methods of energy reduction for homes and improved use of statistics for medical purposes. The Galton Institute in London published Pittman’s book on Sir Francis Galton, the developer of modern statistical methods. SMU’s DeGolyer Library now houses Pittman’s collection of Galton materials, the finest in the U.S.

Pittman received the Lazenby Outstanding Alumnus Award from the SMU Chemistry Department in 2008.

Related links:
Gary E. Pittman
IEEE: “From Crystallography to Visible Light”
Galton Institute
Sir Francis Galton
SMU Department of Chemistry

Health & Medicine

Diabetics could get relief from daily injections

Chemist Brent Sumerlin, assistant professor in the Dedman College Department of Chemistry at Southern Methodist University, is assessing the potential uses for nano-scale polymer particles. One of those could be controlled drug delivery.

In one scenario, polymers could detect high glucose levels in a diabetic’s blood stream and automatically release insulin, freeing diabetics from a daily injection schedule.


Sumerlin’s research has earned him a $475,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award. NSF gives the award to junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars in American colleges and universities.

Sumerlin will receive the grant over five years for two related nanotechnology research projects. One of those projects has potential biomedical applications, and the other has a promising advanced materials application.

The prestigious award also includes support for education outreach. Sumerlin’s grant will fund a program for K-12 school districts and community colleges to help prepare and attract minority students for SMU chemistry internship positions.

“As a teacher, as a scientist, and through his community outreach and service, Professor Sumerlin exemplifies the finest scholarly tradition,” said Cordelia Candelaria, dean of Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. “His work is dedicated to expanding minds through exposure to basic science, including a generous willingness to share his lessons and labs off campus with teachers and students in elementary, middle and high school classrooms. Dedman College is thrilled by NSF’s recognition of Brent’s achievements.”

Sumerlin, 32, works with an SMU team of postdoctoral research associates, graduate and undergraduate students who fuse the fields of polymer, organic and biochemistries to develop novel materials with composite properties.

“This award enhances what I do at the university level and what I can do through SMU for the rest of the community,” Sumerlin said.

The first part of Sumerlin’s NSF-funded research will investigate how nano-scale polymer particles can be triggered to come apart in response to a chemical stimulus. One of the potential applications of the technology is an automatic treatment solution for diabetics by releasing insulin from tiny polymer spheres when they encounter dangerous levels of glucose in the bloodstream.

“Researchers worldwide are looking toward methods of insulin delivery that will relieve diabetics of frequent blood-sugar monitoring and injections,” Sumerlin said.

The second aspect of the project involves making polymers with the ability to come apart and put themselves back together again – a technique that Sumerlin believes can be used to construct materials that are self-repairing.

“We could potentially think about coatings for airplane wings that are damaged by debris during flight,” Sumerlin said. “After landing, we could quickly treat the coating, causing it to re-form itself.”

Sumerlin received his doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2003, accepted a position as visiting assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University for the next two years, then joined SMU in 2005.

Related links:
Brent Sumerlin’s research
Brent Sumerlin
SMU Profile: Brent Sumerlin
Sumerlin Research Group
Department of Chemistry
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Health & Medicine Mind & Brain

Protecting brain’s neurons could halt Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s

Researchers at Southern Methodist University and The University of Texas at Dallas have identified a group of chemical compounds that slows the degeneration of neurons, a condition that causes such common diseases of old age as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotropic lateral sclerosis.

SMU Chemistry Professor Edward R. Biehl and UTD Biology Professor Santosh R. D’Mello teamed to test 45 chemical compounds. Four were found to be the most potent protectors of brain cells, or neurons.


Their findings were published in the November 2008 issue of “Experimental Biology and Medicine.”

The synthesized chemicals, called “substituted indolin-2-one compounds,” are derivatives of another compound called GW5074 that was shown to prevent neurodegeneration in a past report published by the D’Mello lab.

While effective at protecting neurons from decay or death, GW5074 is toxic to cells at slightly elevated doses, which makes it unsuitable for clinical testing in patients. The newly identified, second generation compounds maintain the protective feature of GW5074 but are not toxic, even at very high doses, and hold promise in halting the steady march of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Sadly, neurodegenerative diseases are a challenge for our elderly population,” D’Mello said. “People are living longer and are more impacted by diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis than ever before, which means we need to aggressively look for drugs that treat diseases. But most exciting now are our efforts to stop the effects of brain disease right in its tracks. Although the newly discovered compounds have only been tested in cultured neurons and mice, they do offer hope.”

The most common cause of neurodegenerative disease is aging. Current medications only alleviate the symptoms but do not affect the underlying cause, which is degeneration of neurons. The identification of compounds that inhibit neuronal death is thus of urgent and critical importance.

The new compounds may offer doctors an option beyond just treating the symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases. The development isn’t a cure, but doctors may be able to one day use compounds that stop cell death in combination with currently existing drugs that battle the symptoms of brain diseases. The combination of stopping the disease in its tracks while treating disease symptoms can offer hope to people suffering and the families impacted by these diseases.

Related links:
Edward Biehl
Santosh D’Mello
SMU Department of Chemistry
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Energy & Matter Health & Medicine Technology

New durable materials result from silicon polymers

David Son uses some of the Earth’s most common building blocks to create complex new materials with potential wide-ranging applications.

Son conducts research on polymers containing silicon. One of the main elements in the Earth’s crust, silicon is the major ingredient in common sand, and is readily available.Son2.JPG

“It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to transform silicon into compounds we can manipulate,” says Son, associate professor in SMU’s Department of Chemistry in Dedman College. “And because silicon is an inorganic element, it gives materials great stability against temperature changes and oxidation.”

Silicon-containing polymers might be used to create more heat-resistant and longer-lasting plastic materials than common organic polymers such as polyethylene or PVC, Son says. One example is the silicone ovenware widely available in stores. Pans made of silicon polymers are temperature-safe, naturally nonstick, and so flexible that they can be turned inside out to remove baked goods.

Most polymers are what chemists call the straight-chain type, with each molecule consisting of atoms laid more or less end-to-end. Son’s research focuses on a new class of polymers called dendrimers, also known as “arborols” for their molecular resemblance to trees with many branches.

The dendrimers’ structure gives them many advantages.

“You can dissolve them much more easily in solvents,” Son says. “Because the molecules are shaped like balls, they roll right over each other and don’t get tangled up the way straight-chain polymers do, so you can use them as lubricants.”

Other possible uses include new drugs in which medicines are encapsulated in the dendrimers’ branches, transported to targeted areas of the body, and then stimulated to release medication directly to those sites.

Most recently, Son has begun creating materials that merge metal ions with organic compounds called ligands. Ligands can be as simple as water or as complex as ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or EDTA, a compound commonly used as an anticoagulant in medicine.

Son is especially interested in how nitrogen- and sulfur-based ligands bond with silver, gold, palladium, and platinum, which are elements with well-established catalytic properties. He hopes to create compounds that can be used to improve everything from optics to plastics manufacturing.

Platinum and palladium compounds are used industrially to spark reactions in other materials. Creating better catalysts, Son says, could enable more efficient manufacturing processes, for example, at lower temperatures or with fewer defects.

Son received his Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry from MIT and has conducted research at the Argonne National Laboratory and the Naval Research Laboratory.

Related links:
SMU Research 2008: Faculty mentor students
David Son
Department of Chemistry
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences