Dr. Maolin Guo at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has received a 3-year $400,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation, supporting the research efforts in his laboratory to develop new molecular imaging probes for detecting iron ions in live cells at subcellular resolution. The powerful new imaging probes will allow researchers to peer into cells and understand how iron ions affect our health.
But why iron?
Because we cannot live without it -- literally. Iron carries oxygen throughout the body, and is necessary for making DNA. And iron levels can adversely impact human life: having too little or too much iron in human cells is linked to hundreds of diseases, from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to diabetes and cancer. Many of these diseases are linked to iron-promoted production of harmful free radicals, which cause the cell to break down.
Because it's so difficult to observe these interactions at such an extremely small scale, scientists unfortunately have little knowledge of how iron interacts with the organic compounds that make up our bodies.
"We need a better understanding of the complex mechanism of how iron acts at the subcellular level to be able to successfully develop new pharmaceuticals and other treatments," said Dr. Guo.
His solution is to make the iron ions easier to see by making them glow. Dr. Guo's method is to "paint" iron ions by making them respond specifically to a fluorescent dye, such as rhodamine, linked with an iron receptor. It does not glow in the absence of iron, but instead glows in its presence.
It's already a proven technique: earlier this year Dr. Guo's laboratory became the first to see endogenous iron ions in live cells using their imaging probe, which he described as an "unprecedented and really exciting" development. Scientific journal ChemBioChem featured their work on its cover--a great honor for the researchers.
At the time, Guo used an extremely powerful laser confocal microscope -- basically an industrial-strength, souped-up version of a high school science class microscope.
With his grant from the National Science Foundation, he and his team will be able to use the iron imaging probes to observe how iron acts in cells, opening up a new field of scientific and medical research.
"The insights gained from this study will allow us to monitor and image how iron affects living organisms," said Guo, "and to develop therapies that can change iron's effects on them."
Guo, who has been studying the biochemistry of iron for 15 years, is using the iron sensors at the UMass Cranberry Health Research Center to seek new medical uses for cranberries. Dr. Guo proposed cranberry phytochemicals may catch the "bad iron" and prevent them from generating harmful free radicals in cells highlighting areas where new drugs and new therapies might be found.