By Taylor Kubota
Jennifer Dionne, associate professor of materials science at Stanford University, is among the 2017 Moore Inventor Fellows, an initiative of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation that recognizes five early-career scientist-inventers each year.
“Embodying Gordon Moore’s passion for science and penchant for inventing, the Moore Inventor Fellows are problem-solvers seeking to develop new tools and technologies that will accelerate progress in scientific research, environmental conservation and patient care, three areas of interest to our foundation,” said Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, in the article announcing this year’s fellows. “These young inventors show great promise for creating positive outcomes for generations to come.”
Each fellow receives $825,000 over three years, which includes $50,000 a year from their home institution, to fund a specific invention. Dionne was selected for leading the development of a nanostructured optical filter that will use light to separate highly similar molecules, called chiral molecules. Like left and right hands, chiral molecules are mirror twins but do not behave interchangeably.
For example, depending on the handedness, the molecule limonene smells like oranges or turpentine, ibuprofen can be four times more potent and thalidomide either treats morning sickness or leads to severe birth defects. There are currently techniques to separate chiral molecules but they are often too expensive, time-intensive or inefficient.
“Approximately 50 percent of drugs and 30 percent of agrichemicals are chiral, which means they can be left- or right-handed. Of those, more than 90 percent are sold as mixtures of both handed molecules because it’s so hard to separate them,” said Dionne in a Stanford News article on this research.
In addition to sorting drugs to make them safer or more effective, Dionne and her colleagues think their optical tweezers, as the invention is called, could be put to other uses, such as monitoring the folding or unfolding of a protein or enabling light-mediated synthesis of chiral chemicals.
The 2017 Moore Inventor Fellows were recognized at an event Nov. 6 at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, which included a panel discussion with Cori Bargmann, president of Chan Zuckerberg Science; Ilan Gur, founding director of Cyclotron Road; and Steve Quake, co-president of Chan Zuckerberg Biohub and professor of bioengineering and of applied physics at Stanford.