Optical Sensor Determines Molecular Chirality

(Image credit: University of Central Florida)

Researchers from the University of Central Florida have developed a nanostructured optical sensor that, for the first time, has the efficiency to detect molecular chirality.

It is highly crucial to determine chirality for developing new drugs.

Imagine molecules to have little hands. Although not identical, they have functions that are nearly indistinguishable. A person can pinch, grip, open, and punch his/her hands, irrespective of whether the left or right hand is used. However, while performing certain functions (for instance, writing), being right-handed or left-handed matters.

Researchers have found it hard to ascertain whether molecules have distinctive left- or right-hand functions since their physical properties such as density, length, elasticity, and weight seem to be identical.

Debashis Chanda, UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center Associate Professor, and Abraham Vazquez-Guardado, PhD student, have worked out an exclusive technique to achieve this. When the uniquely designed nanostructure developed by them interacts with light, a strong chiral light field is created.

Although this nanostructure does not possess geometrical chirality, it produced two opposite light chirality (left or right) on demand. When the chirality of the light and the matter matches, similar to shaking hand with one’s right hand, it can be successfully identified.

Hence, this rotating light field has the potential to detect and identify any chiral molecule such as DNAs, proteins, or drugs. The light field enables researchers to view the tiny hands, as it were.

The outcomes of the study have been recently reported in the Physical Review Letters journal (PRL, 120, 137601, 2018).

Chirality detection is vital in the drug-development industry, where newly synthesized chiral drugs also have two-handed strands and always form with the same likeliness during the synthesis process.

But while one chiral strand constitutes the active element in the drug, its opposite can turn out to be toxic or render detrimental side effects. Consequently, pharmacological and toxicological characterization of chirality plays a crucial role in the pharmaceutical drug industry and FDA approval process.”

Debashis Chanda

The ability to probe chirality at this level will enable researchers to have a better technique to identify the causes of the bad side effects or maybe find ideal locations to upload life-saving drugs.

In this preliminary research, the UCF researchers demonstrated chiral molecule-detection sensitivity that is four times higher than the traditional method, without laborious and extensive sample preparation and at considerably lower sample volume.

The single optical element thin-film chirality sensor, if developed using the low-cost, large-area nanoimprinting method, will be highly advantageous for drug design and protein-conformation identification, both of which are crucially significant in treating and understanding various diseases, stated Chanda.

The study was funded by the Florida Space Institute/NASA, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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