Device will be designed to assess carcinogens and their induced changes in cells.

NIH will award Andrea Armani of the University of Southern California $2.3 million over five years to develop an ultrasensitive nanolaser that would allow her to detect changes in DNA as they’re happening in real-time. The first part of the project focuses on building the nanolaser instrument, while the second half will concentrate on DNA experiments.

Current research methods are only able to capture snapshots of these DNA changes instead of monitoring the process continuously, points out Armani, an assistant professor at the Mork Family department of chemical engineering and materials science. The sensitivity or resolution of many of these techniques is also very poor, she adds.

Armani’s device will be designed such that as DNA binds to the surface of the nanolaser, the color or lasing wavelength emitted by the laser will change. As the DNA changes, the color will change again.

The improved resolution is a result of the precision with which the color can be monitored. This device will allow Armani to study a single DNA strand in isolation rather than groups of hundreds to thousands of strands as is currently the norm.

Armani’s goal is to pinpoint triggers for cancer. She will focus first on using the nanolaser to perform initial proof-of-concept experiments using known triggers such high concentrations of common solvents and cleaning agents. Part of this process involves taking a single strand of DNA, exposing it to a harsh chemical, and seeing whether a specific change is initiated. Ultimately she’d like to be able to warn people which triggers to avoid.

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