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Technique moves researchers closer to viable GaN biosensors

19 December 2014

Researchers from North Carolina State University have found a way of binding peptides to the surface of gallium nitride (GaN) in a way that keeps the peptides stable.

Image: Nora Berg
Image: Nora Berg

Preserving the stability of the peptides, even when exposed to water and radiation, moves researchers one step closer to developing a new range of biosensors for use in medical and biological research applications.

GaN is a biocompatible material that fluoresces when exposed to radiation. Researchers are interested in taking advantage of this characteristic to make biosensors that can sense specific molecules - or 'analytes' - in a biological environment.

To make a GaN biosensor, the GaN is coated with peptides – chains of amino acids that are chemically bound to the surface of the material. These peptides would respond to the presence of specific analytes by binding with the molecules.

The idea is that, when exposed to radiation, the intensity of the light emitted by the GaN would change, depending on the number of analytes bound to the peptides on the surface. This would allow researchers and clinicians to monitor the presence of different molecules in a biological system.

“A key challenge in developing GaN biosensors has been finding a technique to bind the peptides to the GaN surface in a way that keeps the peptides stable when exposed to aqueous environments – like a cell – and to radiation,” says D. Albena Ivanisevic, senior author of a paper on the work and an associate professor of materials science and engineering at NC State. “Now we have done that.”

“We used a two-step process to bind the peptides,” explains Nora Berg, a doctoral student at NC State and lead author of the paper. “First we used a combination of phosphoric and phosphonic acids to etch the GaN and create a stable ‘cap’ on the surface. We were then able to attach the relevant peptides to the phosphonic acids in the cap.”

To determine the stability of the peptides, the researchers placed the coated GaN in an aqueous solution and then placed the solution in a 'phantom' material that mimics animal tissue. The GaN, solution and phantom material were then exposed to high levels of radiation, beyond what would be expected in a clinical setting. The material was then evaluated to see if there was any degradation of the peptides or of the GaN itself.

“The peptides remained on the surface,” Berg says. “The aqueous solution caused an oxide layer to form on the surface but there is no indication that this would affect the functionality of the peptides.”

“Now that we’ve shown that this approach allows us to create functional, stable peptide coatings on this material, we’re moving forward to develop a particle configuration – which would be injectable,” Ivanisevic says. “This will open the door to in vitro testing of the material’s sensing capabilities.”

A paper describing this work was published online December 5 in the journal, Langmuir. It was co-authored by Dr Michael Nolan, an assistant professor of radiation biology and oncology at NC State, and Dr Tania Paskova, a research professor of electrical engineering at NC State.

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