Dr. Brent Sumerlin, Assistant Professor, Chemistry Department
Brent Sumerlin got his first taste of what it's like to work in a chemistry lab while still a high school student. The boyish-looking Sumerlin doesn't appear to be that much past high school age now, but these days he's heading up a research team at SMU in the growing field of polymer chemistry.
Polymers are giant, chainlike molecules, also called macromolecules. Cellulose (the material that the cell walls of plants are composed of) is a polymer that occurs in nature. Plastics are man-made polymers. "Mother Nature is much better at making polymers than we are," says Sumerlin. "We try to develop polymers that mimic Mother Nature."
Sumerlin became interested in polymers while an undergraduate student at North Carolina State University and did his Ph.D. work at the University of Southern Mississippi, one of just three universities that specialized in polymer chemistry.
One of the polymer projects his group is working on could someday translate to a huge improvement in quality of life for Type 1 diabetics. Currently, patients with Type 1 diabetics must prick a finger (or arm) several times a day to monitor their blood sugar levels as well as inject insulin several times a day. The idea Sumerlin had might eliminate the need to check blood sugar levels and dramatically reduce the frequency of insulin injections.
Sumerlin says he was thinking one day shortly after he arrived at SMU about "smart" molecules, which are polymers that respond in very specific way to a specific stimulus such pH or temperature or salt. "I was trying to think of new things that these polymers could respond to, and I came up with glucose and it sort of dawned on me that this would be the perfect treatment for diabetes," says Sumerlin.
The idea is to create a polymer that assembles itself into a "vesicle," or hollow sphere. The sphere would contain insulin. The polymer would be responsive to glucose, and when it encountered a large quantity of glucose it would "pop," releasing its glucose payload. If there's little glucose present, the vesicle remains intact.
Sumerlin has received funding from the American Chemical Society for the project, and is applying for funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
"Largely, it's an idea," says Sumerlin. "We've had some preliminary success in the laboratory."
The group that's working with Sumerlin includes five graduate students, two post-doc researchers, one undergraduate student and one high school student. "Each year I try to host a high school student. That's how I got into it," Sumerlin says, with a Tom Cruise grin.