Chemical engineering professor Raymond Tu and his Ph.D. student Ankit Deepak Kanthe arrived at NSF’s ChemMatCARS at the beginning of June 2018 as synchrotron neophytes. At the end of June, they left as well-initiated users with publishable data related to the effectiveness of advanced pharmaceuticals—and plans to come back.
Kanthe is in his second year in the Ph.D. program of the Department of Chemical Engineering at City University of New York, City College (CCNY); Tu is an associate professor in the same department.
Their one-month visit was sponsored under the Faculty and Student Team Research Award at ChemMatCARS (FaSTRAC). This competitive-admission program supports the use of ChemMatCARS by Minority-Serving Institution faculty members and their research students. In the program, faculty/student teams are fully supported for travel, housing, research materials, and stipend for a stay of four to six weeks.
Ankit Kanthe (left), Raymond Tu (left, center), Wei Bu (right, center) and Binhua Lin (right)
In addition to the monetary support, the CCNY team received four days of beamtime. Their experiments at the APS will support Kanthe’s doctoral research.
“In our project we are trying to understand how pharmaceutical macromolecules behave at the air–water interface,” Kanthe explained. In particular he is interested in therapeutic proteins, such as the monoclonal antibodies used for cancer treatment. “During the production of the antibodies or proteins, or when they’re shaken before being injected into a person’s body, you tend to create air bubbles, which are air–water interfaces. The material tends to collect at those interfaces, and when that happens the drug loses efficiency,” Kanthe said.
The question is important because the pharmaceutical industry is moving to bigger and fancier protein-based therapeutic molecules, according to Tu. “Over the last 100 years most molecules used as therapeutics have been small molecules, like in aspirin. The pharmaceutical companies are new to the notion of processing big molecules. Lots of things can happen if they use small-molecule tools to process big molecules,” Tu said.
One strategy to prevent therapeutic molecules from being “lost” at air–water interfaces is to add small-molecule surfactants that will also be drawn to the interfaces. The question then is “who wins the race,” as Tu puts it. If the small molecules win, they form a protective layer that keeps proteins away from the interface and therapeutically available.
Their work during the FaSTRAC visit focused on getting angstrom-level information about the dynamics of this “race,” a level of detail about structure and composition that they couldn’t get with the techniques available at CCNY. With data at this level, combined with their home-lab results, they can begin to build a publishable case for this strategy for improving the effectiveness of a range of therapies.
Kanthe was the pioneer, arriving at APS first. By the time Tu arrived, Kanthe was the veteran, with two days of beamtime—including four hours of troubleshooting—under his belt. But he quickly found that “getting data is one thing, but analyzing data is the harder part. I’m getting there because of the people here, who have helped us a lot. The office where I was sitting was so nice; all these people can walk by and see what I’m doing, so whenever I was stuck, they would see it and ask ‘is something wrong?’”
Tu had heard about synchrotron work from colleagues, but his visit to NSF’s ChemMatCARS was still an eye-opener. One of the many pro secrets he learned? That even a 24-hour beamtime all-nighter can be fun. He and Kanthe competed to stay awake and snapped photos of each other napping. The camaraderie was energizing: “The next day I was more interested in looking at data than I was in sleeping,” Tu said. (One visit and already he sounds like a synchrotron veteran.)
For Tu, the most significant result will be bringing that energy back to the community at CCNY, where more than half of the students are Hispanic and African-American and more than half are women. In addition, many students have an annual household income at the poverty line for New York City, and more than half of the students are the first in their family to attend college. In these circumstances, a big concern is attrition due to family or economic pressures.
According to Tu, the work he and Kanthe completed at ChemMatCARS will help keep students excited and engaged—and continuously enrolled—despite those external pressures. “Our students benefit a lot from a connection to a real problem,” Tu said. “This is a very real system that allows a lot of fundamental chemical engineering principles to be taught: transport phenomena, thermodynamics, mass and energy balances. These are classes that I’m teaching during the semester to 100 undergrads. Showing a real-world problem with the ability to measure things at this very high-end facility allows us to get students more excited about research and chemical engineering.”