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'Cells In, Disease Out'


  • Title: Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Education: PhD, Stanford University, 2004
  • Recommended by: Alan Guttmacher

Coming from a chemical engineering background, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Charles Schroeder also wanted to do something practical for human health. He is now developing a microfluidics-based tool to trap single DNA molecules so they can be genotyped. "The overarching goal of this project is to develop an integrated microfluidics device ... where we take cells in and we get a genotype or some information about disease on the output," Schroeder says. "It's cells in, disease out."

The microfluidics tool he and his lab are working on traps and stretches single DNA molecules using heterodynamic, or flow, forces. "Using this approach, we have a really nice way to just stretch out and set our mass-trap for linear analysis of their backbone," Schroeder says.

Once the DNA molecule is held by the device, a bit of biochemistry comes into play. The scientists add fluorescent, sequence-specific DNA-binding proteins so the DNA sequence can then be determined. "Just like a barcode sequence, you can read out the position of these fluorescent probes along the stretch of the DNA molecules," Schroeder says.

By using techniques from single molecule analysis, biochemistry, and physics, Schroeder and his group are developing a novel tool. "We really are doing some new technology development, so there are some significant barriers to overcome," he says. "Whenever you do something for the first time or try to figure out a new technology, it's challenging," he says.

Another challenge, though, is getting the projects underway. "At this stage in my career, [the challenge is] basically getting a good momentum in my own research group," Schroeder says. His research covers a variety of fields and his lab has to have the proper mix of expertise. "As a manager or a PI, it's doing the right hiring and making sure that your group will have the skills that it needs to be successful in an interdisciplinary field," he says.

Schroeder has learned perseverance, in its many forms, from one of his graduate school mentors, Steven Chu. One of Chu's lessons was that "there [is] more than one way to solve a problem," Schroeder says. "You can't get discouraged if the first or second way doesn't work."

Schroeder says he has also been inspired by Chu's career trajectory; Chu began as an atomic physicist and now focuses on pure biology. "It was a lifelong learning for him. It wasn't just turning the crank or doing the next sort of incremental thing. Everything he approached, he tried to make his mark on and do in a revolutionary type of way," he says.

Looking ahead

Schroeder is encouraged by the current explosion of genome-wide association studies that are pinning genes to disease. But he says this is only the beginning. He hopes that the next few years will bring more detailed studies and resequencing of putative disease genes and investigation into rare alleles. "I view what's been done — while they are really interesting and amazing studies — [as] almost, at this point, proof-of-principle," Schroeder says. He says that researchers need to look beyond SNPs and study how copy number variations and larger rearrangements affect human health.

Publication of note

Much of Schroeder's current work deals with genotyping, but his background is in single-molecule research. A 2003 Science paper from his graduate career typifies his earlier work. "That's a really nice demonstration of a polymer physics study [and] this manipulation of single DNA chains, or DNA chains at the single molecule level," Schroeder says.

And the Nobel goes to …

Schroeder would like to win for developing "a technology that would advance human health in some major way."

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