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Metrohm USA's Vice President of Marketing, Michael Allen, presents the ceremonial giant check to the 2017 Young Chemist Award winner Aldin Malkoc at Pittcon 2017 in Chicago. Photo: Metrohm

From its booth in the Pittcon Exhibitor Hall, Metrohm USA announced Arizona State University graduate student Aldin Malkoc as the winner of its 2017 Young Chemist Award. Now in its fifth year, Metrohm’s Young Chemist Award is open to all undergraduate, graduate, post-graduate and doctorate students residing and studying in the U.S. and Canada who are performing novel research in the fields of titration, ion chromatography, spectroscopy and electrochemistry. The grand prize is $10,000.

Malkoc’s research focuses on cooperative, DNA-based molecular elements for electrochemical biosensors. Laboratory Equipment Editor-in-Chief Michelle Taylor spoke with Malkoc after he gave a short presentation of his research and was handed the ceremonial “giant check.”

Q: Can you summarize your research in the electrochemical biosensor field?
A:
What my research attempted to do was improve on the specificity and sensitivity of DNA detection, specifically, differentiation between single nucleotide differences using electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS). In order do this, we utilize a molecular recognition element called tentacle probes (TP), which are unique elements that use divalent binding to achieve results of high sensitivity as well as extremely high specificity without false positives.

What we showed was something really amazing. The use of tentacle probes with EIS produced statistical detection significance between a target and non-target DNA sequence. The target was B. AnthracisgyrA gene (Anthrax) and B. Cereus gyrA (soil bacteria) Single Nucleotide Polymorphism sequence at a lower limit of detection of 20nM. Basically, the EIS-TP system detected the target. Even with a single base pair mismatch in the non-target, it was able to differentiate between the two.

Q: What is the overall goal of your research?
A:
The overall goal of my research is to offer a better, faster and easier method of nucleic acid detection. The even bigger goal was to reduce the false positives that occur. This was something we were able to actually achieve. We did so at a lower limit detection (LLD) of 20 nM with far more specificity and sensitivity than some current biosensors and PCR technologies. The resulting false positives that come from the SOTA detection of commercial devices are eliminated with the TP-EIS system. The ability to detect nucleic acid sequences at this LLD, along with the combination of TP-EIS has the potential to become the next step in biosensor DNA detection.

Q: How can your research impact the present and future state of healthcare, both in the U.S. and abroad?
A:
There is a new effort by the World Health Organization that aims to address the development of new novel biosensors. They call it ASSURED—affordability, specificity, sensitivity, user-friendly, rapid detection, equipment-free, and deliverable (to those who need it). To fulfill the WHO requirements, this research combined the strengths offered by TP and EIS. The electrochemical biosensor is a technology that addresses some of the criteria imposed by WHO and ASSURED requirements. EIS-TP detection is a method that is affordable, sensitive and rapid. In addition, the operation of the device is comparable to a glucose meter—it has high potential to become user-friendly with further development. Finally, the technology is equipment-free and deliverable to developing countries.

Q: How did you first become involved with biosensor research?
A:
I truly just wanted to do something where I could make a difference. However, I have always been the type of person who is a day-dreamer. When I first began this research, I loved the idea that what I was doing could one day make such a huge impact on the world, and maybe even save lives. As the first person in my family to attend college, I was intrinsically motivated to earn a degree in the biomedical field and pursue a career where I can develop state-of-the-art medical devices and give back to my local community. The devices I aim to develop are ones that would allow physicians to assist their patients more efficiently and affordably. More specifically, patients in low-income communities would benefit from low-cost, highly accurate diagnostic devices made available to them in convenient and accessible locations. I hope the work I do will benefit global and local societies, while advancing new technologies for application in low-income communities and countries.

Q: Why did you choose Arizona State University for both your undergrad and graduate work?
A:
The main reason I chose ASU was because of my high school summer internship program, and because of the two professors I worked with—Dr. Jeffrey Labelle and Dr. Michael Caplan. Specifically, Dr. Labelle took me into his lab and I become one of his research assistants, and Dr. Caplan further mentored me and assisted when I wrote my first authored paper. Dr. Caplan has been on of the most positive mentors I have ever had. Additionally, further interactions I had with all the great professors in the biomedical engineering program was another part of the reason I began my studies at ASU and will finish my studies at ASU with my masters. From the very technical class work to the hands-on experience, ASU has a mix of it all.

Q: What does it mean to you to win this award from Metrohm?
A:
Doing cutting-edge research that is developing solutions to existing problems is what I love to do. Furthermore, being given this award and recognized for something I feel so passionate about is truly amazing. It was an honor representing the award this year, coming to Pittcon, and getting the chance to meet an amazing company. I'm glad the work I have done is reaching such high standards.

Q: What’s next for you, your career and your research?
A:
Currently, I have a few hard decisions to make. I could continue to do research, in the biosensors world, and hope to make the world of diagnostics better, finishing my graduate work and obtaining my Ph.D. in the process. The other option I have is to go into the field of medicine by attending medical school. At this time, I am leaning toward joining the field of medicine. While I would like to continue doing research, I think this is something I can still do in the field of medicine in the form of clinical research, but at the same time I can have a positive, direct impact on the lives of others. 

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