SORTING CELLS FOR HUMANITY’S SAKE
Martinez-Duarte is standing at the dawn of a new age — the Age of Nanoweavers. There are objects, devices, structures to be made, and he’s cogitating on how to make their fundamental building blocks in ways never imagined, much less carried out.
In addition to the cellulose fiber work, Martinez-Duarte and his students are using similar principles to sort cells for biomedical applications. If they can successfully separate one or two pathogenic cells from blood or urine samples, without expensive and bulky lab equipment, it would not only be an engineering success, but also an economical and humanitarian success.
Currently, he and his students are focusing on sorting the different kinds of Candida that can cause a yeast infection, an increasing problem around the world because the yeast are becoming resistant to current drugs. Using electric fields and microfluidics, Martinez-Duarte and his team are working toward a test that sorts the infecting cells so they can be quickly identified and physicians can target treatments to specific strains. This latest work on Candida comes after work with blood cells, parasites, bacteria and DNA in the last 10 years and in collaboration with multiple groups around the world.
“For someone who is an engineer doing biomedical work, [Martinez-Duarte’s research] is pretty fantastic,” says Blanca Lapizco-Encinas, a professor of biomedical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Martinez-Duarte is driven by a desire to make the world a better place. It’s a sense of responsibility that was fostered by his parents while growing up in Sinaloa, Mexico. His father influenced his interest in engineering, and his mother always encouraged him “to persevere towards my goals, to enjoy hard work and always strive for my best work,” he says. These are principles he strives to pass on to his mentees.
There are plenty of technical challenges to overcome before Martinez-Duarte’s work becomes common. The team is learning how to characterize each cell’s electrical signature in order to move them individually. They’re deciding which bacteria to use, what to feed it and the conditions under which the cells could produce cellulose with tailored properties. That’s the way science works; questions are asked and answered, examined, answered again, more questions are asked, ways to test theories are invented. It takes years to build a factory, especially one nobody, except Martinez-Duarte, has ever imagined before.