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ASU Professors Wins $3 Million NIH Grants For Research On Rapid DNA Sequencing Technology

Arizona State University (ASU) has been awarded nearly $3 million in federal stimulus funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). ASU's Stuart Lindsay and Paul Westerhoff will lead a pair of two-year, innovative projects designed to tackle challenges in the fields of rapid DNA sequencing and nanotechnology.

In one project, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) will support work at ASU’s Biodesign Institute through a significant grant to boost research on rapid DNA sequencing technology.

Professor Stuart Lindsay’s two-year, $1.7 million research project will use carbon nanotubes to allow for vast stretches of DNA sequence information to be read in a single pass. Current technologies can only read about 1,000 chemical letters of the 3-billion-long human DNA chain at a time.

Lindsay, the director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, was one of just seven researchers in the nation to receive funding to support his team’s efforts to bring low-cost DNA sequencing technology to the masses – a technology that promises to transform everyday medical care and research.

“While the costs of sequencing the complete DNA information of an individual have plummeted in recent years, from $1 billion to $100,000 or less, the field is still actively searching for a next-generation breakthrough technology,” said Lindsay, who also holds the Carson Chair in the Department of Physics. “Our goal is to simplify DNA sequencing like the invention of the transistor simplified electronics.”

The new NHGRI awards will stimulate groundbreaking research in studies mainly aimed at understanding the function of the human genome to lead to improvements in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human illness.

NHGRI has identified the development of technologies that can sequence a human genome for $1,000 or less as its Recovery Act Signature Project. Leaders of the federal agency believe that truly inexpensive genomic sequencing will revolutionize health and medicine, and Recovery Act funding will accelerate Biodesign’s research program in this area.

In recent years, ASU has had several ongoing DNA sequencing projects funded by the NHGRI.

“We are very thankful for the NHGRI’s support to drive innovation in DNA sequencing technology,” Lindsay said. “Our technology aims to save costs because there is almost no sample preparation and use of costly reagents, and we will use a direct electronic readout from a small, computer-chip-like device.”

Nanotechnology and human health

In the other NIH-sponsored “GO” project, researchers at ASU will improve the detection and assessment of potential health risks of engineered nanomaterials in water, food, commercial products and biological samples.

The ASU team will be led by Paul Westerhoff, a professor and the interim director of the School of Sustainability and the Built Environment, a part of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Researchers at the Colorado School of Mines will work on the project with Westerhoff’s team.

They will be supported by a grant of more than $1.2 million from the US Department of Health and Human Services. The project is part of a larger endeavor involving a consortium of research teams based at 12 universities and other research institutions throughout the country. The consortium will work on methods to better measure the size and concentration of nanomaterials that are increasingly used in the manufacture of commercial products and end up in the environment and in humans.

At the same time, they will seek ways of more precisely determining exposure levels to nanomaterials and the human health risks that specific exposure levels may pose. With the proliferation of nanomaterials in manufactured products, people may eventually be exposed to thousands of different types of nanomaterials.

“Current detection capabilities fall short of enabling accurate quantification of the sizes and concentrations of nanomaterials, making it difficult to determine the potential for health risks and significant environmental impacts,” Westerhoff said.

Members of Westerhoff’s ASU team include: Rolf Halden, a Biodesign Institute researcher and an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment; Pierre Herckes, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; and Kiril Hristovski, an assistant professor in the Department of Technology Management in ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation

Project partners at the Colorado School of Mines are James Ranville (chemistry and biochemisty) and Christopher Higgins (environmental sciences and engineering).

The federal investment in ASU research in Recovery Act funds promises not only to create and retain biomedical research jobs for ASU, but advance research that should significantly enhance the knowledge of the human genome and of nanotechnology, as well as accelerate the application of that knowledge to improve human health.