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No Where to Hide
By: Michelle Bova (HS'07)
There is a swarm of activity. On the long, stone tables in the Mellon Institute of Science, researchers are filling test tubes and inspecting samples. The lab is tidy, lines of glassware are arranged by size, and everything is neatly (and necessarily) labeled. A light flashes on the mass spectrometer. With the noise created by the fume hood, rushing water from the sink, and conversations, the sound is more chaos than science.
Oblivious to the distractions, Carnegie Mellon's Marcel Bruchez looks into his microscope, hoping to see something in a way no one ever has before. Surrounding him are members of the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center team.
Under the microscope is plenty of action too. Proteins scamper across the cell surface. The associate research professor and MBIC program manager carefully adds a tiny amount of liquid from a dropper directly onto the cell sample. The center of the cell glows red, and the outer membrane of the cell glows green. This is the moment the MBIC researchers have been working toward for more than five years-watching the cell respond to a drug using fluorescent dyes.
They can make cells glow in a rainbow of colors-red, orange, violet, and green. It's not actually the cell that the fluorescent dyes are identifying; it's the proteins moving in and around the cell. What inspires the researchers is that they can now distinguish proteins in the interior from proteins at the cell surface. The new technology, called fluoromodules, successfully monitors biological activities of individual proteins in living cells in real time.
To monitor such activity will lead to a better understanding of cells-why they become susceptible to viruses and diseases such as cancer, HIV, and influenza. MBIC-directed by Alan Waggoner, professor of biological sciences-is hard at work creating an expanded array of colorful fluorescent dyes so researchers can distinguish proteins at an even greater multitude of stages within cells. Although fluorescent dyes have been used to image occurrences at the cellular and molecular levels for more than 20 years, never before have scientists been able to watch the cellular workings in such detail.
The fluorescent probes and imaging research have grabbed the attention of the chemistry world. Last spring, three graduate student researchers from the team were invited to present the fluorescent imaging progress at the 239th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, which is the world's largest scientific society and widely considered one of the leading sources of authoritative scientific information. The society has more than 160,000 international members.
More recently, companies involved in developing compounds for therapeutic drugs and research tools have been inquiring about licensing and commercializing the work of MBIC, which was named by the National Institutes of Health to be part of the National Technology Center for Networks and Pathways. This NTCNP program is a collaboration among Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh, The Scripps Research Institute, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, University of New Mexico, and Wayne State University.