Jin Kim Montclare is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. She contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Proteins are polymers commonly made from a set of 22 natural building blocks called amino acids. In the lab, my team can now engineer entirely new proteins by adding or changing those building blocks. We have developed proteins that can assemble themselves into nanoparticles capable of encapsulating drug molecules. That has the exciting potential to transform cancer therapies, and even more exciting is that, thanks to the National Science Foundation, we’re working on tailoring these nanoparticles with specific fluorine tags to allow us to visualize them.
This has so many potential applications in technology and medicine. For example, biomaterials containing fluorine could be used as "markers" during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), allowing doctors to diagnose, treat and monitor cancer patients with incredible accuracy.
Fundamentally, the materials we're creating are intelligent; they are able to sense and respond to external cues like temperature. We can fine-tune their behavior by simply altering protein sequence, length and composition — all through engineering. Now, we don’t have to content ourselves with a mere 22 amino acid building blocks; it's like waking up on Christmas Day and finding a jumbo set of LEGOs under the tree. There's no limit on the useful proteins we can build!
Montclare's most recent Op-Ed was Does Twitter Deserve a Place in the Classroom? The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.