Copp Gets NSF Grant to Develop Fluorescent Nanomaterials for Deep Tissue Imaging

June 29, 2020 - Stacy Copp, assistant professor of materials science & engineering and physics & astronomy, has received a research grant from the National Science Foundation Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems. Copp will manage the $582,000 grant with co-principal investigator Petko Bogdanov, assistant professor of computer science at the State University of New York at Albany.

The research team will develop new fluorescent biolabels that emit near-infrared (NIR) light for applications in noninvasive deep tissue imaging. This technology would have broad applicability for biomedical research.

Fluorescence microscopy is a powerful visualization tool for biology but is often limited to very thin samples. Since NIR light penetrates much farther into biological tissues than visible light, NIR fluorescence microscopy allows for imaging deep into tissues and even whole organisms. However, deep tissue imaging is currently hindered by a lack of small, nontoxic molecules or nanoparticle “labels” that emit NIR light. 

Copp proposes to develop brightly fluorescent biolabels that release NIR light by exploiting a class of promising tunable nanomaterials called DNA-templated silver clusters. These silver clusters are unique for their fluorescent colors, which are programmed by the sequence of DNA. To design NIR silver clusters, the research team will harness high-throughput experimentation and tools from machine learning. Copp will synthesize and characterize thousands of DNA-stabilized silver clusters, and Bogdanov will create machine-learning frameworks that learn to connect the properties of DNA-stabilized silver clusters to the sequence of the DNA. Together, the team will develop a predictive model to expedite discovery of bright, biocompatible NIR silver clusters. Copp will test the designed biolabels in collaboration with the research group of Marcus Seldin in the UC Irvine School of Medicine to study endocrine hormones central to metabolic and cardiovascular disease.

“I am very enthusiastic to launch this research effort at UCI and am especially excited about the potential to translate our materials innovations into enabling tools for biomedical research,” said Copp, who joined the faculty last year. “DNA-templated silver clusters are an especially promising materials platform for developing NIR biolabels for deep tissue imaging. These biolabels would allow us to visualize and track hormones directly in the body, with transformative potential for our understanding of the endocrine system, and would also be broadly applicable for research in other areas of biomedicine such as tumor formation and metastasis.”

– Lori Brandt

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