Sensing a Healthier Future with Sustainable Nanomaterials and Biosensors

Thought LeadersProfessor Omowunmi (Wunmi) SadikDistinguished Professor and Director of The BioSMART CenterThe New Jersey Institute of Technology

In this interview conducted at Pittcon 2024 in San Diego, we spoke with Professor Omowunmi (Wunmi) Sadik, this year’s Keynote Speaker, about the transformative impact of sustainable nanomaterials on human health.

Could you please introduce yourself and your current position?

My name is Omowunmi Sadik. I am the department chair and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). Additionally, I am the center director for the BioSMART Center, situated on the downtown Newark campus.

Could you share with us your journey in the field of chemistry and your current role at the BioSMART Center & New Jersey Institute of Technology?

I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, in a family that strongly encouraged my pursuit of science. After completing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Lagos, I pursued my Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia.

Following my doctoral studies, I joined the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a National Research Council postdoctoral research position in immunochemistry. Subsequently, I began my independent career at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where I progressed from assistant to associate and finally full professor over a span of 24 years. Approximately five years ago, I transitioned to NJIT.

Your keynote presentation at Pittcon 2024 revolves around sustainable nanomaterials. What is meant by the term “sustainable nanomaterials,” and what initially sparked your interest in this area of research?

Sustainable nanomaterials are derived with a low carbon footprint. The design involves reducing the use of volatile organic materials and considering bio-renewable materials with 100 % renewability and biodegradability.

My interest in this field was initially sparked by the prevalent negative connotations associated with chemistry, such as toxicity and the use of volatile organics. We’ve witnessed concerns regarding substances like lead, mercury, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).

However, chemistry has contributed immensely to society. It has facilitated advancements in pharmaceuticals, improved health, and played a crucial role in enhancing food production through pesticides and herbicides. Additionally, chemistry has been central to energy production.

It is, therefore, imperative that we think about the potential role that chemistry can play in terms of sustainability. When we discuss sustainability, we must consider society, the environment, and the economy—the three pillars of sustainability. Sustainability is akin to a three-legged stool, with people, the planet, and profit at its core. Therefore, sustainability is crucial for our progress moving forward.

Pittcon Thought Leader: Omowunmi Sadik

How was it to be this year’s keynote speaker, and how did you find the talk yesterday?

Having attended Pittcon for the past three decades, I’ve had the privilege of participating in numerous Coulter keynote lectures. It’s truly an honor to be named the 2024 Walter Coulter lecturer. I feel both delighted and humbled to be associated with those who have walked this path before me.

In your talk, you mention the use of sustainable nanomaterials to understand reaction mechanisms. Could you elaborate on how these materials aid in this understanding?

Understanding reaction mechanisms is crucial for addressing the unintended consequences of chemistry. While detection is important, comprehending the fate, transport, and transformation of chemicals in the environment and human health is equally important. Without this understanding, we only grasp part of the story. Therefore, I believe that delving into mechanisms is critical, and utilizing sustainable materials to understand these mechanisms is pivotal for comprehending their effects on human health.

Your work has significant implications in biosensing, especially for pain biomarkers and persistent pollutants. How do you foresee these applications evolving in the near future?

Pain biosensors are becoming increasingly necessary for objectively measuring pain. Pain assessment in healthcare settings often relies on subjective methods, such as asking patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to five. However, pain is highly individualistic, and this subjective approach can lead to inaccuracies. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain based on what the individual reports, emphasizing the subjective nature of pain perception.

Continuing to rely solely on subjective pain assessment methods may contribute to the exacerbation of the opioid crisis. For instance, if a person expresses their pain intensity as “10 out of 10,” it is crucial to acknowledge and respect their subjective experience. Denying or questioning their reported pain level undermines their experience and can hinder effective pain management.

To address these challenges, objective measures of pain are needed. Similar to glucose monitors that objectively measure blood glucose levels, we should explore the identification of biomarkers for pain and the design of devices capable of objectively assessing pain levels. This is the driving force behind my work in pain biosensors.

What is actually meant by the term biosensor?

Biosensors are compact devices comprising a transduction element closely associated with a biological molecule. This biomolecule interacts with the analyte of interest, triggering a response that is amplified through electronic components to provide valuable information.

A prime example is the glucose monitor, which typically employs electrochemical transduction linked with the enzyme glucose oxidase. When glucose in the blood combines with glucose oxidase, two compounds are produced: gluconolactone and hydrogen peroxide. While gluconolactone is not electroactive, if we measure hydrogen peroxide, we can indirectly determine how much glucose is present in the blood. That is a very good example of a biosensor.

Image Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

Image Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

Biosensors are versatile and can be designed for various applications. For instance, alcohol biosensors are used by law enforcement to detect alcohol levels in individuals suspected of driving under the influence. We can design a biosensor for almost anything.

Your biosensor technology for pain assessment is quite innovative. What are the key factors that led to its development, and how does it work?

A close friend approached me regarding their daughter’s constant struggles with sickle cell disease. Doctors often faced challenges in accurately gauging the level of her pain, so she asked if it was feasible to devise an objective method for pain measurement.

This resonated deeply with me, as I believed such a solution should already exist. I assured her that with the right transduction and molecular tools, we could develop a sensor for this purpose. Our subsequent literature search revealed the absence of such a solution, sparking the beginning of our journey in the development of pain biosensors.

The pain biosensor operates by targeting cyclooxygenase II (COX-II), an enzyme responsible for converting arachidonic acid into prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are inflammatory markers associated with pain. By measuring COX-II levels, the biosensor detects the presence of these markers. COX-II has been extensively studied and implicated in various conditions such as inflammatory diseases, osteoarthritis, neurological disorders, and cancer.

Over the years, substrates have been developed to bind to COX-II, leading to the creation of medications like Advil, Vioxx, and Bextra, although these drugs have encountered issues. By understanding the biochemistry of pain and inflammatory markers like COX-II, we can design sensors tailored to detect them. This approach forms the basis of how pain biosensors function.

What challenges have you faced in researching and developing nanomaterials that are economically beneficial yet environmentally benign?

One of the primary challenges we face is persuading individuals of the significance of sustainability and the importance of designing sustainable materials. Over the past two decades, nanotechnology has been the subject of intensive study. During its early stages, two contrasting perspectives emerged: one suggested that nanomaterials are inherently toxic, while the other proposed their potential applications in fields such as biomedicine.

The first group focused extensively on investigating the environmental health and safety (EHS) implications of nanotechnology. Many organizations, including the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), were proactive in addressing these concerns from the outset.

The NNI, which involved over 25 federal agencies, played a central role in coordinating efforts to understand the EHS issues associated with nanomaterials. Agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) provided funding to support researchers in this field.

Another critical organization in addressing the sustainability of nanotechnology is the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (SNO). SNO, a 501(c)(3) organization, serves as a platform for professionals across various disciplines, including scientists, engineers, social scientists, and economists, to engage in discussions regarding the advantages and disadvantages of nanotechnology.

For those unfamiliar with SNO, I encourage you to visit www.sosnano.org.

As the co-founder of SNO for the past 13 years, I have witnessed annual gatherings where practitioners convene to explore these topics. Thanks to proactive measures taken by individuals and organizations, such as those supported by the NNI and SNO, there has been a significant shift in the conversation surrounding nanotechnology. Rather than viewing nano as inherently toxic, there is now an emphasis on designing nanomaterials with safety and sustainability in mind.

Can you discuss the roles of electrosynthesis and sonochemistry in the development of safe nanomaterials?

Electrosynthesis allows us to create nanomaterials using electrons. It is a safe method that sidesteps the need for volatile organic substances. Sonochemistry operates on a similar principle, utilizing sound and acoustics to achieve material synthesis. These methods align with the ethos of green chemistry, alongside photochemistry and electrochemistry, as they prioritize sustainability and environmental responsibility in material production.

You are the Co-Founder of the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization. Could you tell us more about the goals of the organization, as well as the work the organization does?

I had the honor of being the inaugural president and co-founder of SNO. My colleague, Barbara Kern of the EPA and also NSL, joined me in this endeavor. Our aim was to establish a platform for nano practitioners to convene and engage in constructive dialogue regarding the advancement of nanotechnology.

Today, under the leadership of our current president, Dr.Achintya Bezbaruah, SNO continues its mission to promote research, education, and responsible development within the field of nanotechnology.

It’s fascinating to see how the conversation has evolved. Now, the focus extends beyond discourse to tangible applications. For instance, if you’ve received the Moderna or Pfizer COVID vaccines, you’ve already been exposed to nanotechnologies. This shift underscores the positive potential of nanotechnology and the importance of responsible development.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of Pittcon, could you share your first memory or experience of attending this conference and how it impacted your view of the scientific community?

My first Pittcon experience dates back to 1993, over 30 years ago, when I was a grad student traveling from Wollongong, Australia. Encouraged by my mentor and advisor, Professor Gordon Wallace, I found myself immersed in the excitement of the event.

I attended various technical sessions, and it was particularly beautiful to see that we were not alone in the work that we were doing in the lab; others were also delving into similar realms of chemistry.

The exhibition floor was just as exciting as I had the opportunity to see some of the companies and instrumentation that I had only ever encountered in literature – Dionex, Waters Corporation, and Shimatsu, among others, were all present.

Since then, I've made it a point to return to Pittcon time and time again. The allure lies in several factors. Firstly, the networking opportunities are unparalleled. Pittcon brings together the luminaries and influencers of analytical chemistry and applied spectroscopy, fostering connections and encounters with old friends and esteemed professors.

I vividly recall one instance at a SEAC dinner where I found myself seated across from Professor Allen Bard, whose electrochemistry textbook had been like a Bible to me. Though initially starstruck, a chance conversation during the break led to Professor Bard warmly introducing me to fellow attendees, catalyzing my integration into the community.

Additionally, Pittcon offers invaluable short courses covering many topics. The exhibition floor, with its array of cutting-edge instrumentation and technologies, never fails to captivate me. In essence, Pittcon is more than just a conference; it's a hub of learning, networking, and inspiration that keeps me returning year after year.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to at Pittcon 2024 in San Diego?

The weather in San Diego is always beautiful, so selecting a seaside location for the event is a fantastic choice. As you know, at this time of year, snow is on the ground on the East Coast, so this will be a welcome change to enjoy the pleasant weather there.

I'm especially looking forward to the technical sessions and sharing this experience with my students, two of whom will be presenting. As always, I'm excited about the networking opportunities that Pittcon always brings.

About Professor Omowunmi (Wunmi) Sadik

Dr. Sadik is a Distinguished Professor and Director of The BioSMART Center at the New Jersey Institutes of Technology (NJIT). She has held appointments at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Harvard University, Cornell University, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Naval Research Laboratory. Sadik holds five patents for her work on biosensors and nanostructured membranes and has published over 200 peer-reviewed works with 400 invited lectures and conference contributions. Her group focuses on understanding interfaces, particularly the electrochemical interface, and how to use the knowledge gained to pursue the development of innovative bio (analytical) sensor technologies that improve human health and the environment. Sadik has developed biological sensors for objective pain assessment, electrochemical sensors for heavy metals, proteins, and organic acids, and a portable, fully autonomous, and remotely operated sensing instrument known as the U-PAC (Ultra-Sensitive Portable Capillary Sensor). At BioSMART Center, she is leading the efforts to create sustainable nanocatalysts to detect and degrade recalcitrant pollutants such as PFAS, 1,4-Dioxane, and micronanoplastics. Sadik is a fellow of the American Chemical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, and the National Academy of Inventors. As the Co-Founder and Inaugural President of the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (www.susnano.org), Sadik is building support for Science and promoting the understanding of its broader relevance to society.

About Pittcon

Pittcon is the world’s largest annual premier conference and exposition on laboratory science. Pittcon attracts more than 16,000 attendees from industry, academia and government from over 90 countries worldwide.

Their mission is to sponsor and sustain educational and charitable activities for the advancement and benefit of scientific endeavor.

Pittcon’s target audience is not just “analytical chemists,” but all laboratory scientists — anyone who identifies, quantifies, analyzes or tests the chemical or biological properties of compounds or molecules, or who manages these laboratory scientists.

Having grown beyond its roots in analytical chemistry and spectroscopy, Pittcon has evolved into an event that now also serves a diverse constituency encompassing life sciences, pharmaceutical discovery and QA, food safety, environmental, bioterrorism and cannabis/psychedelics. 


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