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UT Graduate School of Medicine in Research Forefront


A partnership between the UTHSC Graduate School of Medicine and nanotechnology firm NanoTek, LLC place the collaboration at the forefront of research in the detection of cancer and chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

A partnership between the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s (UTHSC) Graduate School of Medicine and local nanotechnology firm NanoTek, LLC place the collaboration at the forefront of research in the detection of cancer and chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

UTHSC’s Knoxville unit recently purchased two microfluidic chemistry systems from NanoTek for Positron Emission Tomography (PET) biomarker production. The devices greatly speed the creation of molecules, known as biomarkers, designed to detect the presence of certain diseases.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded UT and NanoTek a small business grant for continued collaboration on the project. Recently announced by Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr., (R-Tenn.), a portion of the grant provides UTHSC with funding to continue refining the technology in a research setting.

NanoTek, headquartered in Blount County, is a startup company focused on the development of instruments for quickly creating chemicals for use in medicine, science and homeland security. It is one of a number of companies in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley who have relied on the resources of both UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the development of their technology.

“This new system will hopefully help many people across the country suffering from chronic diseases,” said Rep. Duncan. The system uses unique microfluidic technology to produce molecular markers or biomarkers. These biomarkers are used to indicate or measure a biological process, which can aid in the diagnosis of disease in people who may be at risk but do not yet exhibit symptoms.

The biomarkers created at UTHSC with the new system are used in PET scans for the detection of cancer and other illnesses in the human body. The technology developed by NanoTek uses glass-fabricated microreactors and precise microfluidics to accelerate the creation of new drugs. The chemistry is performed in channels smaller than the width of a human hair.

Meixiang Yu, Ph.D., chief of PET radiochemistry at UTHSC, explained that PET biomarker production involves labeling a compound with a radioactive isotope that tracks specific physiologic pathways in the body. This is important since biomarkers can be designed to identify cancer cells.

“Not only are we capable of making these biomarkers, but now we are able to do it very quickly,” explained Dr. Yu. “The labeling reaction in the NanoTek device occurs rapidly and efficiently. A range of biomarkers can be produced within one to two minutes instead of the 30 to 40 minutes required using conventional labeling techniques.”

David Townsend, Ph.D., Director of the UT Cancer Imaging and Tracer Development Research Program, noted that this collaboration places UTHSC in the ranks of world-class imaging research. “Together with our state-of-the-art imaging facilities for both pre-clinical and clinical research, the NanoTek technology will expand our capability to produce novel biomarkers for our PET research,” Dr. Townsend said. “Such biomarkers are the future of molecular medicine for the early detection of cancer and other illnesses,” he observed.

James J. Neutens, Ph.D., UT Graduate School of Medicine Interim Dean, looks forward to the day when the research translates to daily medical diagnostics. “UTHSC is one of the first medical centers to use this technology in the clinical setting through our close collaboration with NanoTek. We are excited because early disease detection means better outcomes for patients.”

Joseph Matteo, founder and CEO of NanoTek, said, “We are just beginning to understand the power and usefulness of the technology we have designed. Through this partnership with the graduate school, we will study just how large of an impact on biomarker development we will have,” Matteo continued. “We think it will be huge. We know it will be faster and less costly than ever before,” he noted.