New TTU Center to Look at the Small Picture Chemists Help Battle Diseases and Environmental Problems

The tiniest targets hold the answers to defeating the world's most troublesome diseases and environmental contaminants -- now Tennessee Technological University has new ammunition to help researchers lock on to those targets.

Chemists aiming for diseases and contaminants need help to see-- down to the atoms -- what makes up their targets. Tennessee Tech chemistry professors Jeffery Boles, Dan Swartling and Ed Lisic are in the final stages of setting up a university center that will help take aim at the smallest of marks.

"To create a new compound, researchers must have the ability to see the molecular matter they are aiming for," said Boles. "That's hard to do when your target is one millionth of a meter in length."

Scheduled to open in later this fall, the new TTU Center for Structural Chemistry is funded by a $238,000 National Science Foundation grant. The center's showcase piece will be a nuclear magnetic resonance instrument.

"This system works like an MRI machine in a hospital, with a significant exception," said Boles. "Where an MRI looks at whole organs or tumors, an NMR looks only at atoms. It is this level of science that's necessary to battle disease and clean up the environment."

The TTU Center for Structural Chemistry will house the best instrumentation in any Tennessee Board of Regents university for looking at certain atomic nuclei, including selenium atoms. Selenium is an important micronutrient in our diets as well as an important part of biological structure.

Most NMR centers are not set up to do as sensitive and detailed analyses on selenium and other atoms as Tennessee Tech's center. Boles said the center's configuration will allow unique experiments.

"We'll be able to do 3-D and 4-D experiments which are not available at Tennessee's largest research institutions," Boles said.

"We're architects, only on a different scale," said Boles. "Think of an architect who designs a skyscraper. He can study his finished product simply by looking and studying what he sees. But the molecules we construct can only be verified with the type of instruments we'll be using in the center."

Lisic's laboratory work focuses on new diagnostic imaging compounds for the analysis of bone and other biological targets. These agents go to selected diseased portions of the body and allow physicians to "observe" these organs without having to use surgical techniques.

The center's focus will be much broader than disease research. The keys to environmental cleanup are often found at the molecular level. One example is Swartling's study of chelating agents, elements that bind to impurities in the environment. Boles said the center's capabilities make new studies of these agents and other environmental cleanup efforts possible.

Also, industries concerned with purity analysis or identification of unknown compounds at the molecular level can work with the center.

Boles emphasized the value of the center extends beyond research and industry because it's intended to be a working lab for chemistry students.

"It's important to know students will have access to every piece of equipment, no matter how expensive or advanced," he said. "Our chemistry department produces award winning research, and students will get their hands on the same equipment our researchers use in their national and international collaborative research."