Vincent Rotello, ORGANIC CHEMIST, Amherst, Massachusetts
"I wanted to be a chemist in elementary school after my uncle, a chemical engineer, visited. I started drawing carbon structures. I love the idea of being able to connect things together."
What He's Doing
Vincent Rotello works with tiny compounds called nanomaterials. Even though they are far too small to be seen with the naked eye, they could have a big impact on human health problems.
In the human body, proteins interact with other proteins and sugars on a regular basis. Rotello is investigating exactly how some of these interactions occur by taking a close-up, microscopic-level look at the way their surfaces attach to each other. The technique is called supramolecular assembly, or "the chemistry beyond the molecule," because it depends on interactions between molecules—in other words, their stickiness.
Rotello is even developing tiny particle systems that can act like real biological proteins and engage in some of the same interactions with proteins and sugars. To make them, his team starts off with a chain of basic non-interacting particles. "If you put it into cells or biofluids, it floats around and doesn't do anything," Rotello explains.
Then he attaches parts called functional groups to the end of those chains, and observes how these change the chain's interactions with cells, proteins and sugars.
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
I like to cook and I'm promiscuous in my cuisine—adventurous and spicy
Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. It relates to running a research group: the things that go into making a happy ship are many the same as the things that go into making a happy research group.
Gracie, a Weimaraner. She's 100 dog years old, but still excited by everything around her. I hope I maintain the same sense of wonder when I hit that age!
Figuring out how microscopic parts of the cell interact has helped Rotello develop sensors that can identify different types of cancer cells—and not just whether they're cancer cells or healthy cells, but their precise genetic patterns and characteristics.
"Take prostate cancer, for instance," he says. "Many men will die with prostate cancer, but very few will die of it." Some types of prostate cancer are invasive, but others with molecular-level differences are not. When deciding what treatment options to use, it helps to know which is which.
Rotello has also developed a test strip that can detect bacteria in the water. The sensor is made of a protein with a nanoparticle bound to it, which keeps the protein inactive. If certain bacteria are present, they will kick off the nanoparticle and activate the protein—which is designed to generate a color. Rotello's team is working on producing a low-cost version of the sensor for use in developing nations, which he anticipates will happen in the next few years.