Michael C. Leopold, a University of Richmond chemistry professor, has been awarded a three-year grant by the National Science Foundation to continue his research for using nanomaterials to create sensors that are able to detect different targets, like uric and lactic acid, in the bloodstream.

The $270,000 grant will help continue the research Leopold supervises on nanoparticles, and help pay for supplies, student stipends and travel expenses to various conventions in order for the lab team to present its data.

The idea for this research project arose during the pregnancy of Leopold’s wife when she developed hypertension, or high blood pressure, which put her at risk for preeclampsia, a life threatening disease for both mother and child. To decide whether they would need to accelerate the birth, the doctors first had to test her blood to check her uric acid levels, a common indicator for preeclampsia. After having her blood tested multiple times and waiting impatiently for the news, Leopold wondered if there was a faster and more efficient way to do this.

“So I sat there thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you had a sensor that could detect uric acid while a mother is in the paternity ward?’” Leopold said.

That sparked the first idea for his research proposal on using nanomaterials to create a sensor that could work in conjunction with an IV or catheter and continuously track uric acid levels in the bloodstream. The sensor itself works because it is coated with films of nanoparticles, which is an important part of the research group’s discovery, Leopold said.

The second target in the research project was making the sensor adaptable to also be able to detect lactic acid levels in the bloodstream. Sepsis, a type of fatal infection that can be indicated by lactic acid spikes in the bloodstream, often goes misdiagnosed, which leads to full-body infections and, many times, death. Leopold said he hoped the sensors they were developing would be able to adapt and detect many different targets, like lactic acid levels, in the bloodstream.

After coming up with the idea and conducting baseline research, Leopold then had to apply for a federal grant, which is rare and difficult to receive. In order to receive a grant, one must first apply through a federal agency, which then has a committee rank each proposal and decide who will receive funding. Although the grant was given to him and for his idea, Leopold gives the credit to the students who have worked, and are continuing to work, on the project.

“[The students] are the reason for the grant," Leopold said. "They’re the reason I get the grant. They’re the reason it's successful research. These amazing students come and work in the lab and just dedicate themselves.”

Leopold said he believed his undergraduate students were capable of doing top-level research as early as their freshman and sophomore years, and gave them the opportunity, through his research group, to work with technology they would not have gotten the chance to use as an undergraduate at a different university.

"I loved performing the research," said Jackson Hall four-year research group member and Richmond College '14. "It was an eye-opening experience. Before I came to University of Richmond, I had no idea what actual scientific research entailed."

Michael Freedman, fellow group member and RC '13, was a member of Leopold’s research lab for all four years of college and is currently studying at University of Virginia School of Medicine. He and Hall were among the first students to begin working on the biosensor aspect of the lab work. He said he believed this work helped him decide to pursue medicine.

“Worthwhile research is a means of better understanding our world, and understanding is a beautiful thing,” Freedman said. “After my time working with Dr. Leopold, I know I want to commit my academic and working life to science.”

Leopold and his research group will soon be publishing a paper on their work so far, and will also be traveling to Nashville to present their data to the American Chemical Society. With the grant from the National Science Foundation, Leopold and his students will be able to continue doing this research and improving on their sensors.

“[My research group] sees science the way I do, that it is the opening of new technology, new jobs, new healthcare, and it all starts with fundamental research,” Leopold said.

Contact reporter Helaine Ridilla at helaine.ridilla@richmond.edu