The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

New Molecules, New World

Synthesizing state-of-the-art polymers and particles
  • Todd Emrick and his students in a lab.

Fundamental research on water-soluble polymers that began several years ago in the campus’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center has led to new chemistry with implications for cancer therapies.

From life-saving therapeutic drugs, to fire-retardant materials, to energy efficient solar panels, UMass Amherst polymer scientist Todd Emrick and his colleagues are synthesizing a range of new polymers, particles, and composite materials that make for safer, more useful and more reliable products.

Emrick (above left) serves as director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at UMass Amherst, a National Science Foundation (NSF) center that has been active for more than 30 years. Campus strengths in polymer science continue to land the NSF support—about $2.2 million annually. MRSEC enables polymer scientists, chemists, physicists, and engineers to work side-by-side on cutting-edge research as well as forge industry collaborations.

Fundamental research on water-soluble polymers (with origins in MRSEC) that began several years ago has led to new chemistry with implications for cancer therapies. With funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Emrick and the team are working with veterinary and animal scientist Sallie Schneider at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute on polymeric vehicles that improve the efficacy of cancer therapies. By adding these polymers to potential therapies, their research is showing they are capable of turning unusable water-insoluble compounds into water-soluble drugs that can then be taken up into tumor tissue. That conversion enables researchers to experiment with cancer therapies once considered unusable. The additives also make drug molecules larger, allowing the drugs to remain in the body longer, thus increasing their likelihood of reaching the targeted cancerous tissue. Graduate students Samantha McRae, Matt Skinner, and Sangram Parelkar are working closely with Schneider and Baystate Chief of Surgical Oncology Richard Arenas to identify cancer treatments that could most benefit from these polymeric additives.

“Many of the drugs that we have today are not used nearly to their full potential because they are eliminated too quickly,” Emrick explains.

In another line of polymer research, Emrick works with the Environmentally Responsible Anti-Flammable Polymer Materials Group, which was recently acknowledged as playing a role in the advanced plastics research that saved lives in the internationally publicized crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco. Sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration and an industrial consortium since 1996), the researchers are developing safer, non-flammable plastics. Emrick and the team have identified alternatives to conventional halogenated additives that can treat highly flammable plastics such as polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyurethane. The result is a slower-burning, significantly less toxic product that can save lives in disaster situations. In addition to ensuring the plastics are safe, Emrick and the team work with industry to determine which polymers are the most feasible to mass produce.

“It’s really good when companies get involved because they bring a perspective that is practical…it helps you think in a more practical way,” Emrick says.

Emrick is also collaborating with UMass colleagues Alfred Crosby, Thomas Russell, graduate students Irem Kosif and Katrina Kratz (now at DuPont), and Anna Balazs (University of Pittsburgh) on a project focused on new ways to detect and repair damaged regions in functional materials, such as airplane wings, bioelectronic devices and biological implants. Damage to these critically important materials is often so small it is invisible to the naked eye, yet still large enough to cause catastrophic failure. Current methods require a repair much more extensive than the actual damage, which is costly and time-intensive. By mimicking biological processes, the team is developing agents that can selectively target and repair damaged areas, thus creating a ‘repair-and-go’ system using nanoparticle microencapsulation. This work was recently awarded funding from the Department of Energy.

Emrick and his research group also play an important role in the UMass Polymer-Based Materials for Harvesting Solar Energy (PHaSE) Energy Frontier Research Center (co-directed by chemist Paul Lahti and polymer scientist Thomas Russell) which synthesizes new polymers for sustainable energy use. In one line of research, they are developing new polymer conductors to create lightweight, flexible solar materials that can be used in a range of mobile devices, such as solar-powered cell phones, laptops and more.

Emrick says he always knew he loved chemistry, yet was struck in college by the notion of creating entirely new molecules. He remains captivated by this drive, along with a passion for the scientific process—qualities he proudly passes on to his students.

“If it’s new, that’s good. If it’s new and useful, that’s better. If it’s new and useful, and teaches us something—that’s what we try to do,” Emrick says.

Amanda Drane '12