University City

Grants from NCBiotech will buy ‘molecular Xerox machines’ for DNA research

As biology teachers, both Anne Byford and Adah Fitzgerald could find a million uses for a polymerase chain reaction machine.

“It copies specific sections of DNA so we can look and pick sequences of either end of the gene we’re interested in,” said Byford, who teaches at Gaston Day School in Gastonia.

“It’s essentially a molecular Xerox machine,” said Fitzgerald, a teacher at Woodlawn School in Mooresville.

But costs for the equipment can run deep into the thousands, which makes it all but impossible for most secondary schools to obtain.

This August, though, each school will have one, thanks to grants awarded by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Since 1984, NCBiotech has awarded nearly $8 million to educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities.

During this past fiscal quarter, NCBiotech awarded $2.59 million in loans and grants. That cycle included a $6,100 grant for Byford and a $5,630 grant for Fitzgerald.

UNC Charlotte also received a $5,000 grant to fund the Undergraduate Biotechnology Research Fellowship during the quarter. Hiep Nguyen, 23, a molecular biology major at the university, will research the delivery of cancer medicines into pancreatic cancer cells through nanoparticles.

NCBiotech awards 10 to 12 educational grants each year to further biotechnology efforts in the state.

Biotechnology has become a growing industry in North Carolina, which now is the nation’s third-largest biotech hub. According to NCBiotech’s website, more than 500 life-science companies have settled in the state, creating more than 58,000 jobs with salaries of $78,000 or more.

To continue the trend, the center strives to support teachers in the field.

“We want to make sure students and their parents know about careers in biotechnology, and get excited about those careers because their teachers are enabled to do exciting things in the classroom,” said Kathleen Kennedy, Ph.D, vice president of education and training programs with NCBiotech.

At Gaston Day School, the money will allow Byford’s students to build a biological device to test water quality. They’ll create bacteria with an additional DNA protein that will cause it to light up when exposed to high levels of arsenic, lead, or any other contaminants they set as an alarm.

“If it turns red, for example, you could tell that there was a contaminant in there above a given level,” said Byford.

Fitzgerald will use her school’s new PCR machine, also know as a thermal cycler or DNA amplifier, to create a DNA fingerprint lab and to study the DNA of the abundant wild plants on campus.

The applications for biotechology – from medical to environmental and beyond, said Fitzgerald – are endless.

“It’s a set of tools, and what everyone is doing right now is finding how many creative ways you can use these tools to answer the questions that pop up in all aspects of life,” she said.

What sparks a student’s interest while young may have larger benefits for everyone down the line.

Nguyen, who plans to pursue a career in medicine, said his research could lead to better cancer treatments in the future by limiting the harmful effects of chemotherapy on healthy tissue.

“If the nanoparticle will target the pancreatic cancer cell, it may be used in other kinds of cancer cells as well,” he said.

Byford said lab experiments give a more realistic picture of what science can be.

“Science is not experiments that you already know how they’re going to come out,” Byford said. “Science is asking the question that you don’t know the answer to, collecting data, and then trying to figure out what the data means to figure out the answer, or maybe even ask another question.”