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News

Lead detector in the pipeline

  • Carthage College
April 25, 2016

While civic leaders practiced damage control in Flint, Michigan, Carthage chemistry professor Janice Pellino and her students took a more proactive approach against lead poisoning.

They’re working to build a biological sensor that can detect lead in toys and other solids, which ultimately could lead to a home testing kit.

The project began in 2014, as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. Known on campus as SURE, the program pairs small groups of students with faculty mentors to work on a new or developing line of research.

Since then, a series of students have identified a configuration of genes that can sense lead and bind to it. This spring, a new group of researchers is trying to harness a protein that can turn blue when that lead sensor is triggered. Prof. Pellino said they do this essentially by “chemically gluing” together a sequence of genes.

The water crisis in Flint drew national attention to the danger of lead contamination, but corroded pipes aren’t the only source of concern. Although it’s been banned in American-made products since the 1970s, lead often is still found in newly imported toys and jewelry.

Why the lingering allure of lead? It’s cheap.

“Most countries have regulations, but there’s no enforcement of them,” Prof. Pellino said.

Even here in the United States, she said, legal levels are set much higher than pediatricians believe to be safe. Studies suggest even low levels of exposure to lead can cause kids to develop learning disabilities.

Janet Haro ’18, a chemistry major from Mundelein, Illinois, worked on the SURE project last summer. It was a good fit with her pre-pharmacy concentration.

“I liked the idea of potentially helping people in a way that’s health-related,” she said.

The testing kit would come in the form of a swab. Prof. Pellino said this method is designed to reduce false positives and, more importantly, false negatives.

It wouldn’t be the first one on the market, but it could be the first one that’s more reliable than a coin flip.