In April 2009, the journal Nature Nanotechnology published promising findings on cancer detection

produced by Clarkson Professor Igor Sokolov's group, an affiliate of the University's Nanoengineering and Biotechnology Laboratories Center (NABLAB). Using a creative interdisciplinary approach and the power of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), the team has discovered previously unknown features that differentiate cancerous cells from healthy ones. Their achievement, which could lead to earlier detection and treatment of cancer, illustrates the strengths in collaboration and innovation that have made Clarkson an international leader in research.

The pioneering project began in 2006 when Sokolov, who has appointments in Physics and Chemistry and Biomolecular Science, teamed with Biology Professor Craig Woodworth, a cervical cancer expert, in seeking an alternative to standard biochemical modes of analysis. They investigated physical properties of cells using AFM. A powerful but still unconventional tool in traditional biological research, AFM has a unique ability to detect forces in the vicinity of surfaces immersed in liquids that is paramount for studying biological objects.

What the team found was a critical difference in minuscule protrusions or "brushes" that cover cell surfaces. Composed mainly of microridges and tiny hair-like microvilli, brushes facilitate cell interaction with external environments. Healthy cells, they discovered, have brushes of one length, whereas cancerous ones usually have two brush lengths of significantly different densities.

sokolov_labSokolov's group showed that the brush layer is far more critical than it appeared when characterized by less accurate approaches - and they suggest that differences in the brush layers may be used for cancer detection. Indeed, in another related breakthrough, they have utilized the brush difference to propose a novel way of detecting cervical cancer using ultrabright fluorescent colloids which they also developed - the brightest particles ever synthesized. These findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Small, a leading journal in multidisciplinary science research.

Sokolov explains that his research occurs "at the crossroads of physics, chemistry and biology." While pursuing his Ph.D. in physics at the Soviet Bureau of Standards in St. Petersburg, he was among the first researchers using AFM (a year after its invention in 1987), arguably the most important tool in the emergence of nanotechnology as a field. "I was also lucky to get postdoctoral training in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Toronto," he says. Since then his exploration of AFM applications in biology has led him to the forefront of this critical research field.

While his group's findings suggest AFM data might lead to a variety of advances in diagnosis and treatment, including improved speed, convenience and accuracy, Sokolov says the results are "far too fundamental to speak [yet] about specific advantages." As the team prepares a more detailed summary of results, he and Woodworth are writing a proposal for further study to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The research was done within the NABLAB Center led by Sokolov, a unit established to promote cross-disciplinary collaborations within the University. It comprises more than a dozen faculty members to capitalize on the expertise of Clarkson scholars in the areas of cancer cell research, fine particles for bio and medical applications, synthesis of smart materials and surfaces in liquids; and does work on fundamentals of self-assembly. For example, his team has used AFM to optimize dental polishing in creating healthy teeth resistive to erosion.

In addition to collaborator Woodworth, Sokolov's current group working on cancer includes Dr. Maxim Dokukin, a physics postdoctoral fellow, and Ravi M. Gaikwad and Nataliia V. Guz, physics graduate students. The other members of Sokolov's group, Dr. Eun-Bum Cho (physics postdoctoral fellow), and physics graduate students Dmitry Volkov and Shuzheng Li, work on biosensors, self-assembly of particles, and the study of skin aging.

Earlier this year, Sokolov received the Veeco Labs Research Innovation Award for using the company's HarmoniX new technique to advance further in cancer research. Among his many other honors: the Simon Greenberg Foundation Scholarship for human skin related studies; Clarkson's Graham Research Award; and the E.L. Ginzton International Fellowship Award from Stanford University. Since arriving at Clarkson in 2000, he has garnered
$4.9 million in research support from sponsors that include the Army Research Office, National Science Foundation, industry and others. He has 100-plus refereed publications which have been cited more than 1,900 times, has filed 24 patents, and given 78 invited lectures and seminars.

"Development at the crossroads of different disciplines has always been fruitful," observes Sokolov, who believes such collaboration is "the fastest way to create new approaches" that solve long-standing problems. "Professor Woodworth and I have a very good match," he says, "because of the complementarity of our skills."