A Clemson University researcher is using a high-profile funding award to better understand tiny particles that have improved everyday products and shown promise for engineering better medicines but have also raised concerns about environmental and biological safety.

Feng Ding, who is standing, works with a student in the Kinard Laboratory of Physics.

Feng Ding, who is standing, works with a student in the Kinard Laboratory of Physics.

Feng Ding, an assistant professor of physics, is furthering his research into nanoparticles with a $506,569 award from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program.

Ding’s research focuses on how nanoparticles change biological materials, including proteins in the human body. Nanoparticles are tens to thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.

At stake in Ding’s research is the future of nanotechnology, a fast-growing area that is helping create new materials for a range of industries from energy and electronics to healthcare and manufacturing.

More than 800 everyday products rely on nanoscale materials and processes, including some baseball bats, cosmetics and eyeglasses, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

Through his research, Ding wants to help ensure that nanotechnology remains safe by better understanding at a molecular level how nanoparticles interact with proteins. The research could also help find medicine to treat maladies that are caused by misfolding proteins, including Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases, Ding said.

Ding said it felt great to win the award, one of the nation’s top honors for junior faculty members.

“As a junior investigator, you work really hard to get some recognition from the experts who know the work and to get them excited about the tool we’re developing,” he said.

Terry Tritt, interim chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, congratulated Ding.

“The NSF CAREER award is one of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards,” Tritt said. “This is a richly deserved honor for Dr. Ding, who exemplifies the role of teacher-scholar through his outstanding work.”

Ding said that biomaterials coat nanoparticles when they come into contact with each other. The biomaterials change shape and sometimes stick together, creating amyloids. Those amyloids cause disease, including Type 2 diabetes.

“If we can figure out what’s causing the problem, we can engineer it to prevent it from creating this bad effect,” Ding said.

Ding is also looking to create an anti-amyloid medicine. He’s hope to find nanoparticles that can grab proteins and prevent them from interacting with each other.

Ding showed in previous research that nanoparticles can prevent islet amyloid polypeptides from sticking together. That’s significant because the aggregation of those polypeptides is what causes Type 2 diabetes. The work Ding is doing could lead to a treatment that slows the progression of the disease, he said.

Central to his research will be the Discrete Molecular Dynamics tool, or DMD. The tool simulates how molecules move around in the physiological environment.

It allows researchers to see how molecules change shape, associate with each other and are covered by nanoparticle surfaces. It also helps predict whether the molecules will change shape.

Ding said the DMD could help other researchers study a vast array of proteins, so part of his award will be aimed at disseminating the tool. He and his team plan to create tutorials and a forum to help train other researchers how to use it.

Congratulations on the award also came from Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science.

“Ensuring the safety of nanotechnology, creating better medicines and disseminating the tools for further scientific discovery are some of society’s biggest challenges,” Gramopadhye said. “This is a well-deserved award, and we are glad to have Dr. Ding at Clemson.”

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under award number 1553945 . Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.