headshot of Nicole Steinmetz

Biomedical engineering’s Nicole Steinmetz awarded NSF CAREER grant

Nicole SteinmetzA Case Western Reserve University researcher has won a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to create tiny sensors capable of detecting insecticides in Lake Erie or determining subtypes of human cancers.

Nicole Steinmetz, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and Mt. Sinai Scholar, will combine antibodies that latch onto pollutants or different types of cancer cells, with a plant virus that serves as a platform.

Steinmetz says the sensors are designed to detect multiple cancer markers or environmental hazards at the same time and with greater sensitivity than what’s currently available. The results could be used for personalized medicine or to more quickly identify pollutants and begin subsequent clean-up efforts.

The five-year Faculty Early Career Development Grant funds the work.

“We’ll make forests of sensors,” Steinmetz said. “The tobacco mosaic virus will be the trunk, and the antibodies will be oriented outward like branches.”

The tobacco virus is rod-shaped, generally about 300 nanometers by 18 nanometers. The branches of antibodies will be oriented so that the combined nanoparticle has a large surface area with dozens of locations to grasp their targets.

Antibodies are proteins formed by animal immune systems in response to the presence of a foreign molecule. The proteins develop surface features and chemistries to grip that specific invader, which they then remove from the body.

The designation as a Mt. Sinai scholar is not only a prestigious honor, but also brings with it the support the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation awards to the medical school’s most promising researchers in the basic sciences. She has spent her career using plant viruses to search for causes of injuries and to treat health problems. This is her first effort into environmental sensing.

“Environmental monitoring is the first step toward healthier societies,” Steinmetz said “In the lab we will mimic hazardous exposures in surface and drinking water.”

To detect what’s in the water, her lab will cover virus particles with sets of antibodies. Each set locks on to different insecticide molecules.

The researchers will study different patterns and densities of antibodies on the virus particles and fine-tune the arrays to make them as sensitive to the molecules as possible.

“If we can detect insecticides in surface waters such as Lake Erie, we can expand the technology to detect pollutants in the air, in other water systems as well as contaminants in the ground,” Steinmetz said. “In the future, the arrays may be used as a filter, capturing the pollutants.”

Steinmetz will use the same technology to differentiate among cancer subtypes. The lab will cover the tobacco mosaic virus with sets of antibodies that hone in on various subtypes and drop the nanoparticles into a solution with tumor cells.

She plans to color code the sets, which will enable the lab to quickly identify the cancer subtype. Each subtype of cancer generates a different antibody. Therefore, identifying which antibody is connecting to cells also identifies the subtype.

If the technology works, the nanoparticles could be combined with cancer-fighting drugs or genetic therapies, which would be delivered directly to their targets.

The new research begins this spring. The groundwork and data used to support the grant application was generated largely by three undergraduate researchers: Kevin Chen, a 2013 graduate, and Michael McBurney and Paul Chariou, who will graduate this spring. Chariou will return as a PhD student to work on the project.