Can we measure the temperature of human cells? A young scientist explains

cells 19

(Hal Gatewood, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Pierre Karam, Assistant Professor, American University of Beirut


What is the big problem you’re trying to solve?

I am trying to develop a tiny thermometer. I know this might not sound very impressive at first, but the technology that we are currently using is almost identical to the thermometer that was assembled by Ferdinand II, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1654. Ferdinand II filled a glass tube with alcohol and used it to measure temperature changes.

Science and technology have advanced a lot since then – and much of the work nowadays is being conducted at microscale- and nanoscale levels. These scales are much smaller than the tip of a thermometer itself, which makes it impossible to measure accurately any temperature changes. For example, a human cell is a few microns in diameter. If you want to measure the temperature in the sub-cellular compartments or to understand how potentially a drug might affect cell metabolism, it is impossible to do it with current technology. Our work is trying to solve this pressing question.

What is the big idea you’re trying to use to solve it?

We are trying to exploit the unique fluorescent properties of conjugated polymers. These polymers were initially developed to fabricate flexible and cheap organic solar cells. They have a very poor water solubility – but what was considered an undesirable property has turned out to be ideal for our application. So we use their low solubility at room temperature to our advantage. Any change in temperature affects their solubility, which in turn translates to a change in their colour.

How would you explain that to a 5-year-old?

We are trying to take the thermometer that your parents use when you are sick to measure your body temperature and shrink it using science to the point that you cannot see it anymore with your own eyes. When it becomes really tiny, we use it to measure the temperature of one of the smallest parts of your body. This is important because when we understand what is happening inside those tiny parts of your body, we can develop good medication that can make you get better faster.

What has been the most difficult/challenging part of the journey?

Working in a country with limited resources, like Lebanon, makes it challenging at many levels. We are lucky to be at the American University of Beirut, which makes every conceivable effort to make it easier for us. However, supplies take a considerable amount of time to be shipped, so often we need to be creative, using or modifying whatever we can get our hands on.

What is the most shocking fact that people are unaware of?

It still amazes me to know that people think a molecule that is synthetically produced in a lab is not identical, or is even of lesser value, than the same molecule that is produced ‘naturally’.

Is there an interesting backstory to your work?

Just like many discoveries, developing the nano-thermometer was a pure coincidence. One afternoon, while performing an experiment, I made a random observation that did not mean much at that time. Later that night – like every night – I was analyzing my data in my head and planning for the next day, while dozing into a deep sleep. This is when I recalled reading a manuscript, a few weeks earlier, about an innovative way to measure temperature in solution. I somehow connected the results that I had obtained that day to the published work, and I speculated that what I had might be able to report temperature changes. Excited, I dressed and went to my lab and tried the experiment that night. It was a great success from the first go. Funnily enough, the ratio that I first used turned out to be the optimal one.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Malaysia has achieved high levels of growth, but must do more to address governance and social challenges

Could implants treat people with brain disease? A young scientist explains

A Sting Exclusive: “The Digital Economy and Industry are no longer opposing terms”, Commissioner Oettinger underlines live from European Business Summit 2015

COP21 Breaking News_10 December:#ParisAgreement: Points that remain in suspense

International tourism arrivals hit record high in 2017, UN agency reports

Portugal: Budget MEPs back €4.66 m in job-search aid for 730 redundant workers

An economist explains how to value the internet

Commission criticised member states on blocking financial transaction tax

More effort needed to improve equity in education

Nearly 180,000 displaced by northeast Syria fighting as needs multiply: UN refugee agency

How smart tech helps cities fight terrorism and crime

Low productivity jobs continue to drive employment growth

These are the countries that eat the most meat

Chart of the day: This is why we need to protect nature’s pollinators

5 surprising ways digital technology is changing childhood

These 5 countries plan to slash their CO2 emissions. But how will they do it?

Multiculturalism, social diversity and tolerance

Will COVID-19 usher in a new culture of outdoor living and dining?

Greece will probably stay in the Eurozone but at what cost?

COVID-19: first go-ahead given to the new Recovery and Resilience Facility

The MWC14 Sting Special Edition

AIESEC @ European Business Summit 2015: The power of an individual and how we can awaken Europe’s Youth

FROM THE FIELD: Sailing a traditional and sustainable path in Fiji’s tropical waters

Rising landmine blast toll in Afghanistan highlights long-term care needs of survivors

More funds needed to counter ‘persistent and multi-faceted humanitarian problems’ in Ethiopia

Budget MEPs approve €34m in EU aid to Greece, Poland, Lithuania and Bulgaria

The COVID-19 pandemic is not a break for nature – let’s make sure there is one after the crisis

The Parliament accuses core EU countries of exploiting their dominant political position

COVID-19 highlights how caregiving fuels gender inequality

Climate action ‘both a priority and a driver of the decade’: Guterres

Warmer months ahead for many parts of the planet: UN weather agency

Amid COVID-19 constraints, UN women’s commission meets to push gender equality forward

EU budget: Commission proposes most ambitious Research and Innovation programme yet

Drawing scenarios for drifting Britain; elections or May’s deadlock?

EU–Canada Summit: strengthening the rules-based international order

MWC 2016 LIVE: 5G to embrace unlicensed bands and Wi-Fi

The future of work ‘with social justice for all’ tops agenda of centenary UN Labour conference

St. Vincent and the Grenadines breaks a record, as smallest ever Security Council seat holder

Infinite Oath

5 key themes for reforming the EU, as elections loom

These photos show the world of science in stunning detail

The Prime Minister of Spain on climate change, taxes and more

Health Systems and Society: ways to reinforce the human power during the pandemic

These are the challenges facing India’s most sacred river

UN official sees ‘unprecedented opportunities’ to make progress on peace in Afghanistan

Four key challenges for cybersecurity leaders

Commission renews its commitment to strengthen fundamental rights in the EU

Huge areas of the Arctic are on fire – here’s what that means for the planet

EU job-search aid worth €9.9m for 1,858 former Air France workers

Toni Morrison: 10 quotes you should know

Switzerland has the most highly skilled workers in the world. This is why

Mental health and suicide prevention

Eurozone: Uncertain future with unemployment ravaging the South

In a time of rising xenophobia, more important than ever to ratify Genocide Convention

What does reimagining our energy system look like?

Stakeholder capitalism is urgently needed – and the COVID-19 crisis shows us why

Businesses are thriving, societies are not. Time for urgent change

Quantum leap: why the next wave of computers will change the world

If we can build the International Space Station, ‘we can do anything’ – UN Champion for Space

Parliament backs a modernised EU electoral law

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s