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Technology Brings College Research into Focus
by Jonas Siegel

Would you know a molecule if it rolled down the street at you?

Technologies often allow scientists in the life sciences to get inside their research materials, to see biological structures and processes on the most elementary level. Faculty at the College and the University are gaining a new focus on their subject matters, thanks to several new pieces of technology at the College. 

In November, 14 investigators including Dr. Roberto Docampo, professor of microbiology/immunology, and Dr. Rex A. Hess, professor of morphology and toxicology, received a grant from the Illinois Council on Food and Agriculture Research (C-FAR) that helped the College purchase a confocal microscope. 

Dr. Docampo will use this technologically advanced microscope to help him identify proteins within organelles of parasites. By verifying the functions of these organelles, Dr. Docampo hopes to develop appropriate chemotherapeutic treatments to rid an organism of a specific parasite. 

[microtubule][microtubule]
A microtubule, which helps organelles move throughout a cell, is captured in a dynamic image from the confocal microscope.

Dr. Hess will be using the microscope to observe the interaction of proteins associated with sperm development, and microtubules, which facilitate the movement of organelles through a cell. Because the confocal microscope can show more than one image at the same time, in optical sections, Dr. Hess will be able to see if specific chemicals are interfering with the development of sperm cells. 

A confocal microscope uses scanning lasers to optically dissect the layers of a specimen. The microscope has the potential to produce high-resolution, three-dimensional images of these layers by capturing and organizing the reflections of light that the lasers emit. 

Dr. Hess, director of the Center for Microscopic Imaging, which is one of many imaging centers that serve University-wide needs, had been seeking funding for a confocal microscope for some time. Since C-FAR awarded its large grant for the purchase of the microscope, University departments and colleges as well as the University research board have contributed funding to reach the approximate $155,000 cost. 

[liquid chromatographer]The new High Performance Liquid Chromotograph with mass spectroscopic detector will be used in clinical as well as research efforts.

“We have had a lot of support from people around the University,” says Dr. Hess. He expects faculty from throughout the university to come and use one of only two such microscopes dedicated to service laboratories on campus.

The College is an ideal place to locate uncommon but useful pieces of research equipment because the facilities are easily made available to a wide variety of potential users, even those outside of the University. 

Soon the College will be the only public institution in the state of Illinois—and one of only a few in the country—with a ribotyper. The College recently purchased a ribotyper with the help of another C-FAR grant. A ribotyper is used to identify bacteria by genotype rather than by phenotype to detect pathogenic strains in food and animal samples. 

According to Dr. Howard Gelberg, associate dean for research, the ribotyper will allow researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of changes in animal rearing, slaughter, and processing aimed to eliminate reservoirs of pathogens. 

Professionals throughout the state will use the ribotyper to trace food poisoning outbreaks, says Dr. Gelberg. But the ribotyper will remain located in the diagnostic laboratory. 

Also expanding research and clinical capabilities through new technology, the pharmacology and anesthesiology units have teamed up to purchase a High Performance Liquid Chromatograph with mass spectroscopic detector (LC-MS). Both departments will use the LC-MS to quantify and analyze mixtures of chemical compounds. 

Dr. Ted Whittem, assistant professor in pharmacology, who was part of the team that recommended the purchase of the LC-MS, said that the methodology of pharmacology research has matured to the point that they need to be able to analyze specific molecules within samples. 

Other College faculty members will use the LC-MS to directly impact clinical work. Dr. William Tranquilli, professor of anesthesiology, notes that when human analgesics are given to animals as part of a pain treatment, it is usually in low doses. 

Previously there was no way of tracking concentrations of low doses in the blood of animals. But with the LC-MS, low concentrations of drugs will be more easily identified, and anesthesiologists will be able to pinpoint combinations of analgesics that provide the most effective pain management for animals.

The LC-MS was installed the second week in December and its components all fit on a tabletop in the service room. The $150,000 invested in this machinery brings the College’s analytical capabilities into the new century. 

Together, the ribotyper, the LC-MS and the confocal microscope will cost just over a half million dollars. Both grants and College resources paid for these purchases.

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