Associate Professor of Chemistry Jason Dwyer of the University of Rhode Island reported an invigorating breakthrough from his Beaupre lab last month.

In March 2008, a severe contamination and recall of Heparin made public headlines in the pharmaceutical and medical industries. This caught the attention of Dwyer, who joined the University’s faculty a year later.

Heparin is one of the most commonly utilized blood thinners, scientifically known as an anticoagulant, used in various medical techniques. It is often used in hospitals prior to surgery to reduce the chance of potentially life-threatening clots during, or after an operation.

“I have a general interest in biomedical diagnostics and broader issues such as pharmaceutical quality assurance,” said Dwyer.

The Dwyer Research Group, consisting of Dwyer who oversees the operations and his doctoral students, began to research this specific issue. The exploration began by analyzing what research had already been done. The group repurposed methods that others have used in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis for their research in order to analyze sugars such as heparin.

“Both Heparin and the impurity are polysaccharides [sugars,] and we use a nanopore, a sensor based on a nanoscale hole, to detect them and differentiate between them,” said Dwyer.

“Our team works as a very cooperative, collaborative mechanism,” said Dwyer. He says that his doctoral students are “largely responsible for all hands-on research, troubleshooting and data analysis.” Dr. Dwyer focuses more on developing and exploring various ideas of research in addition to teaching upper-level chemistry courses at URI.

The team began researching impurity-detection methods of heparin in 2010, and have continued their research ever since, along with other various projects. After eight years of experimenting with detection techniques, last month the Dwyer group reported their findings in the article, “Surveying silicon nitride nanopores for glycomics and heparin quality assurance,” which was published in “Nature Communications,” an online research journal.

The group’s findings resulted in utilizing nanopore technology to detect impurities in polysaccharides, including heparin. Detecting these impurities would ideally prevent the contamination or a similar malfunction like the one in 2008, which resulted in the death of nearly 100 Americans and the sickness of many others.

Dwyer anticipates his group’s findings to have an impact on the pharmaceutical and medical industries.

“On one hand, there is more development required before the specific mechanisms can be applied to heparin on the production floor or in the clinic,” said Dwyer.

However, he hopes to continue to work and develop “a general tool that can be used to ensure quality assurance and has the potential to be adopted for use in medicine.”

Even with the breakthrough that the group reported last month, they anticipate on continuing this research, largely as a result on a $317,000 grant they received from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in July.

Dwyer plans to use the grant to “fund continued work on sensing polysaccharides, develop new sensors and to continue working on new detection methods.”

In addition to the research on impurity detection, the Dwyer group also conducts research on environmental monitoring, partially as a result of the RI C-AIM. The RI C-AIM is a collaboration of engineers, scientists, designers and communicators from eight higher education institutions developing new approaches to assess, predict and respond to the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems (uri.edu). The program consists of a $19 million contribution from the NSF and a $3.8 million state match, which the Dwyer group utilizes as part of their research funding.

Dwyer plans to continue orchestrating various research projects largely due to the generosity of funding from the NSF, as well as to prepare his students to achieve doctorate degrees in Chemistry.