"What's unique about this device is that the surface has nanometer-scale pores in it," Lee said. "The concept is fairly simple - there is an inorganic porous membrane - in this case alumina, which separates the reaction chamber from a solution. The pores in this membrane are nanometer in scale, so they do not allow proteins to readily pass through the membrane but will allow smaller molecules to pass.
"This allows us to do separation right in the reactor, which means we can do reactions that could not be done before in such a small device. We can study membrane proteins in a fundamentally new way, which is very important because many future drugs to treat diseases will likely work by controlling proteins in cell membranes."
Researchers tested the devices with an enzyme that produces a blue color when combined with a liquid that contains molecules small enough to easily pass through the pores. The enzyme, which is a protein, was placed inside the vessels - on the inner surface of the alumina membranes - and the liquid was placed outside each vessel so that it covered the opposite side of the membranes. When the liquid diffused through the membrane's pores, it mixed with the enzyme, causing a reaction and turning blue in the process, which demonstrated that the device works.
The Center for Membrane Protein Biotechnology combines a diverse range of researchers, from engineers to chemists, and pharmaceutical scientists to physicists. The research is supported by the Bindley Bioscience Center, which is part of Discovery Park, Purdue's hub for interdisciplinary research.