|NOTE TO JOURNALISTS:
A photo of Mrinal Shah is available on the Web at http://www.uh.edu/media/nr/2005/
05may/053105mrinalshah.html. Contact Lisa Merkl for a high-resolution
BIOLOGICAL WARFARE, MAD COW DISEASE ON
UH STUDENT’S HIT LIST
Mrinal Shah Develops Technology to Construct Biosensors More Quickly
HOUSTON, June 9, 2005 – A University of Houston student
has made an award-winning breakthrough in biosensors that could
help bioterrorism researchers in their ability to quickly and accurately
detect toxic biological agents.
Mrinal Shah, a doctoral student in chemical engineering at UH,
has developed new methods in the use of biosensors that could provide
one of the first steps in developing a protein-based biosensor that
would help the government in safeguarding the nation.
Working under the direction of Peter Vekilov, a world-renowned
expert in the field of nucleation and a chemical engineering professor
at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, Shah employs liquid-liquid
phase separation – a technique that is similar to the concept
behind how oil and water separate. His research makes use of the
proteins needed in biosensors and accurately controls the nucleation
of those proteins.
“The development of a successful biosensing chip has potential
uses that are manifold and urgently needed with several applications
that are immediately significant,” Shah said. “If there
is biological warfare somewhere, and you put this chip into that
environment, you would know exactly what is in that environment,
and safety precautions could be taken. That’s the ultimate
achievement that every scientist working in protein chips dreams
Biosensing chips are already in use for studies such as the quality
control of water and checking glucose levels. Shah’s involvement
in the biosensing application began with his initial interest in
protein nucleation that occurs with diseases such as Parkinson’s,
sickle cell anemia and Alzheimer’s. While his methods may
prove useful in the early detection of these diseases, Shah said
he is not searching for any cures. He said that what basically happens
is the protein is normal inside the body, but then suddenly something
happens for it to just start nucleating. The protein misfolds, denatures
and begins to aggregate together forming into the disease.
“We’re not finding cures ourselves, but we are finding
the mechanisms that follow the formations of these fibers,”
Shah said. “Once we know the mechanism, then we also can know
by what methods to reduce the rate of its formation. The physics
behind the mechanisms is much more interesting to us.”
Shah says there are a number of other applications for the chip,
as well, including combating mad cow disease and anthrax.
While working on the initial part of his project – studying
the kinetics and the thermodynamics involved to better understand
what mechanisms govern the phase separation of nanoscale droplets
of protein solution – Shah came up with the idea that could
lead to a new potential way of making biosensors that would be fast
and easy. He found that control over nucleation is essential to
the creation of biosensors.
“It was a difficult project, because we were hoping that
one of two approaches would work, and neither of them did,”
Vekilov said. “We tried electrophoresis and dielectrophoresis
and neither worked. But Mrinal kept working, kept trying new things
and finally developed his own method. What we discovered is that
the solution has a time-dependent, non-uniform electric field, and
this is what causes the nucleation.”
“The next step will be to tag the protein molecule onto the
micro-area electrode,” Shah said. “That will be a challenge,
but we already have several promising strategies in mind.”
Since winning second place at last year’s Keck Annual Research
Conference, Shah has been able to replicate his results, using a
more widely used biosensing protein – horseradish peroxidase.
The W.M. Keck Center for Computational and Structural Biology is
designed to unite modern biological, physical and computational
sciences in addressing problems in biology and biomedicine. Its
six member institutions include UH, Rice University, Baylor College
of Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston,
The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and The University
of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas’ premier metropolitan research
and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers
and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate,
civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university
in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and
service with more than 35,000 students.
About the Cullen College of Engineering
UH Cullen College of Engineering has produced five U.S. astronauts,
ten members of the National Academy of Engineering, and degree programs
that have ranked in the top ten nationally. With more than 2,600
students, the college offers accredited undergraduate and graduate
degrees in biomedical, chemical, civil and environmental, electrical
and computer, industrial, and mechanical engineering. It also offers
specialized programs in aerospace, materials, petroleum engineering
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