Charles Taylor is part of a research team awarded a $599,858 grant from the National Science Foundation's Partnerships for Innovation program for the project "Raman Spectroscopic Platform for Analysis of Volatile Organic Compound Biomarkers."

The project aims to establish the key technical innovations for a compact, cost-effective, and user-friendly Raman-based platform to analyze organic compounds in the gas phase or in aqueous solution at the point-of-care or point-of-use for medical, industrial, emergency response and defense related applications.

Taylor, an associate professor of chemistry at Pomona College, and Angelika Niemz, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Professor at Keck Graduate Institute, are the co-principal investigators on the grant. Claremont Biosolutions and Tanner Research, in Monrovia, are also part of the research team.

Raman spectroscopy is a form of molecular spectroscopy that can be used for fingerprinting chemicals. In the past, explains Taylor, it required large pieces of equipment such as lasers, monochromators and high-voltage power supplies. But over the last two decades, instrumentation has improved and now the required equipment can fit in a small bench-top unit.

"Long before modern medical diagnostic methods were developed, physicians could use their sense of smell to help diagnose a person's illness," says Taylor. "This was possible because metabolic disorders and bacterial infections often have characteristic volatile organic compound (VOC) profiles, a.k,a, smells, associated with them. The VOC profiles may be a single compound recognizable due to its high abundance, such as acetone, in exhaled breath or many compounds with lower abundances. While the human nose and brain process these odors almost simultaneously, we can use instrumental methods, such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), to separate the components in the mixture of VOCs present to identify and quantify them.

"By identifying characteristic differences between bacterial cultures, we can select polymers for coating a lens to enhance the signal obtained via Raman spectroscopy. Since this technique has the possibility of being broadly applied, we're looking first at VOCs created by two bacterial strains known to cause ventilator associated pneumonia (VAP): Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which has a grape-like odor, and Staphylococcus aureus."

The new Raman spectrometer, which was purchased with the grant, was installed in Taylor's Seaver South lab earlier this year, and he reports that the "preliminary results are promising!"

Pomona students Alexandra Antonoplis '14 and Constance Wu '14 are currently working on the project, and the grant includes research funds for two students each of the next two summers.