August 25, 2017

The Molecule Designers: Mapping Biodegradable Plastics

Dr. John Rowley guides students through chemical formulations.
Dr. John Rowley guides students through chemical formulations.

“I’m a molecular architect,” states Dr. John Rowley, assistant professor of chemistry at Houghton College and a 2003 graduate. Rather than draft blueprints and build floor plans, Rowley designs the structure of molecules that just might change medical science as we know it.

Rowley and seniors Samuel Gerardi of Delanson, NY and Michael Hardy of Osceola Mills, PA have been part of Houghton’s innovative Summer Research Institute. They join eight other major research teams, combining faculty expertise with hands-on experiential learning and taking students’ knowledge beyond the classroom.

The team’s research has focused on glycopolymers, or polymer molecules that are coated with or contain chemical sugars. While glycopolymers play natural roles in the communication and function of biological cells, they can also be manmade. Most glycopolymers are based on non-degradable plastics, whereas Rowley is interested in designing a biodegradable version that will break down over time. These molecules could be used for biomedical purposes, such as creating a template that prompts heart valve tissue stem cells to grow in their correct shape and form; as the polymer degrades, the tissues remain without the typical plastic or metal stint. Another potential usage is in the delivering of drugs by encapsulating the drugs within and, as the glycopolymer degrades over time, the drug is released. This gradual, consistent level of dosage is more effective and could eliminate the need for multiple injections.

Such research provides a foundational molecule structure and methodology for other scientists to build on and potentially create biomedical advances that improve the quality and effectiveness of treatment.

This SRI research experience has taught me to not merely seek for the right answers, but rather to ask the right questions,” remarks Gerardi. “Research can be discouraging at times, but pushing through the roadblocks or being willing to start over is what leads to breakthroughs.”

The Summer Research Institute has offered unique research opportunities for more than 100 students since its 2007 inception. In 2016 SRI was named one of the Top 50 Best College Summer Programs in the Country by Best College Reviews, joining Ivy League schools such as Columbia and Yale.

Author:
Michelle [Shelly] Hillman|

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