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“A force of nature”: Stanford biophysicist examines tiny molecules quickly

In the past, if you wanted to see which molecules interacted with a particular protein in the body, with the hopes of developing an effective therapy, you had to test them individually, molecule by molecule. It was laborious and time-consuming.

Polly Fordyce, PhD, a Stanford biophysicist, is working to change that. She and her team use microfluidic devices to develop tiny, specially designed beads that are marked with different colors; they use these to examine hundreds of molecules at once. As Fordyce explains in a Stanford Medicine profile on her life and work:

In the same time it takes somebody to measure one thing, now we measure 1,000 things, and that drives science forward 1,000 times faster... If we were to do these experiments with traditional biochemistry techniques, it would take years and armies of postdocs.

Nonetheless, her method isn't easy, yet. Her team had to figure out how to develop 1,000 different colors to label each different molecule — and some way to identify the different colors. So:

Fordyce and her team made much of their lab equipment from scratch. They took apart certain parts of commercial microscopes and 3-D-printed other parts to create a custom microscope capable of imaging the colored beads with deep UV light.

Yet the payoff is likely to be great. She's currently collaborating with Martha Cyert, PhD, a Stanford professor of biology, to learn more about calcineurin, a protein that activates certain immune cells. This could lead to the development of therapies to turn down the immune response following transplants, while avoiding some side effects associated with current therapies.

“The new peptide-bead technology that Polly developed will revolutionize how we study protein-based information networks within cells,” Cyert says.

Cyert has high praise for her fellow researcher, who is also mom to 4-year-old twin daughters. “Polly goes beyond being energetic,” Cyert says. “She is a force of nature.”

Previously: Inexpensive "lab on a chip" could fuel medical diagnostics revolution, researchers hope and Researchers develop biochip with potential to track influenza outbreaks in real-time
Photo by Paul Sakuma

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