Nano Meets Bio: How Dr. Doron Gerber “Channels” Life’s Big Picture

A busy scientist who juggles a large number of collaborative projects while supervising a lab full of students, Dr. Doron Gerber schedules his morning meetings early – this, despite the fact that, as a new father, he claims to go about his duties in a near-constant state of sleep deprivation. However, there is another “baby” that puts a sparkle in Gerber’s eye at any hour of the day: the newly-opened nanofabrication facility that is making his lab in the Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials at BIU, the go-to address for biological researchers in need of cutting-edge device design.

“We get requests from all over the country for customized, high-throughput tools for examining molecular interactions within living systems,” says Gerber, a Bar-Ilan alumnus who returned to campus as a recruited faculty member in 2010. “Whatever the focus of the investigation – whether it’s cell growth, or disease genetics, or any other bio-based subject – our platform, which allows scientists to perform thousands of experiments simultaneously, is a quick and relatively inexpensive way to get to the big picture.”

Gerber’s technology centers on flexible, transparent polymer chips, etched with thousands of micron-sized “microfluidic” channels, each one of which houses a particular experiment.  “Every channel is primed with the biological material needed to produce a particular protein from DNA,” Gerber explains, adding that the small amount of material required for a working chip – just 25 microliters for 10,000 interactions – is a major improvement over traditional techniques.  “As the chips are being fabricated, computer-controlled pressure opens or closes the channels so that specific proteins come together, and also controls digital ‘valves’ that fine-tune the quantities involved. Once the interactions have occurred, fluorescent signals – which indicate that molecular binding has occurred – are analyzed by a specialized laser scanner. This technology provides a huge amount of data – essentially, it gives a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the full range of interactions occurring in a biological system.”

Gerber’s own research has already revealed medically significant results. “During my post-doc at Stanford my lab was the first to identify host proteins involved in Hepatitis C infection, and a drug compound based on our data has already passed preliminary clinical trials,” he says. “More recently, our group here at BIU identified protein interactions involved in RSV – a respiratory virus associated with childhood pneumonia.”

In another recent project, Gerber designed a chip that screens for different categories of enzymatic reactions – a significant achievement, both because of the short time-scale within which such reactions occur, and because of the potential contribution of this approach to future medical treatments.

“Our screening system tracks DNA methylation, an enzyme-mediated process involved in transforming precursor stem cells into different types of mature cells and tissues,” Gerber explains. “The more we know about this process, the closer we will be to the medical goal of re-programming cells in order to treat or prevent disease.”

Now a five-year “veteran” of the Bar-Ilan Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA) – where a high percentage of the faculty are young, recently-recruited scientists – Gerber is now starting the process of tenure review. And while his research is supported by prestigious international grant-making organizations, Gerber finds he is most energized by the support that his own hard-earned knowledge is providing for scientific groups closer to home.

“At least a dozen BIU laboratories are using my technology,” he says, “and outside collaborations are on the rise. While we were building up our nanofabrication facility, I hesitated to ‘market’ our chip-making services because I didn’t ever want to say that there’s something that we couldn’t do.  But now, you can just go to our lab’s website; the range of projects posted there shows that we’re fully operational.”

 

For more on Dr. Gerber click here.