Compact spectrometer reveals molecular structure of proteins, drugs

A startup company stemming from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's chemistry department, PhaseTech, is developing a spectrometer-based device that reveals the molecular structure of proteins, drugs, and other important materials.

The new device, about the size of a breadbox, will shape short pulses of infrared (IR) light produced by a laser, shine it on the sample, and analyze how the sample interacts with the light. What's more, it provides information about the vibrations of molecules better than any other commercially available device, claims inventor Martin Zanni, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Vibrations are useful for studying the structure of a biological membrane protein or a solar cell.

In his research group, Zanni has gone through a number of device prototypes. "Over the last three years, we have helped a bunch of research groups build a device based on our prototype, but even with our help and our parts list, it's taken two years or more for them to get it going. By forming a company [PhaseTech], we'll allow researchers to buy a full-blown spectrometer that they can start using the day it's installed," Zanni says.

"The conventional way of making these measurements could take hours, but we are able to collect a high-quality spectrum in minutes," says Chris Middleton, a post-doctoral fellow in Zanni's lab and co-owner of PhaseTech. "And it's more flexible: using Marty's [Zanni's] pulse-shaping technology, we can change the parameters of the experiment easily, through software, instead of manually adjusting the optics."

Earlier in November 2012, PhaseTech signed a licensing agreement with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation for the patents stemming from Zanni's research at the university. The price for the spectrometer has not been determined, but "will be somewhere between a Ford and a Ferrari," says Zanni.

In studying type-2 diabetes, Zanni uses the IR spectrometer to see how particular proteins gather in beta cells to form a toxic clump that damages or kills the cell, reducing insulin output. The device enables them to study how candidate drugs affect that clumping.

In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences selected Zanni for the Award for Initiatives in Research, which "recognizes innovative young scientists and encourages research likely to lead toward new capabilities for human benefit."

"Experts in the scientific community now understand this new type of spectroscopy and are using it to study many different applications," says Zanni. "Now, a turnkey device is available for non-experts. We think starting this company is good for the advancement of science, will improve our understanding of many important topics, and hopefully will be viable commercially."

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