Chemistry Professor Uses Science to Help Improve Others’ Quality of Life



By Linsey Maughan
Professor Rong Wang in a laboratory setting

What if your toothbrush could detect a gum infection, helping to prevent the need for dental surgery? Or if silk cocoons from silkworms could help restore vital tissue in the female body? These are just two of the latest scientific advancements underway in Professor of Chemistry Rong Wang’s research lab.

“We make basic science useful in practical applications for improving the quality of life,” says Wang, who is celebrating 20 years of teaching and research at Illinois Institute of Technology this year. “I always tell my students that I partner with them to explore new areas and find solutions by invention. I love to see the sparkles in my students’ eyes. Seeing them defend their thesis with great confidence is fulfilling.”

Originally from China, Wang studied physics as an undergraduate at Jilin University in Changchun, China, and then studied chemistry as a doctoral student at the University of Tokyo. After completing her Ph.D., Wang conducted biology research as a post-doc at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Her diverse roots remain evident in the broad perspective she brings to the research projects taking place in her lab today.

“I love the idea of tackling a biological problem with chemical and physical approaches, so my research is quite interdisciplinary,” Wang says. “I am particularly excited about learning from natural biological processes, then tailoring functional materials and inventing new methods for early disease diagnosis, prevention of disease progression, and effective treatments.”

The Future of Toothbrushing

In 2020 Wang, along with a multidisciplinary team of 15 other professors from Illinois Tech and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s dental school, began work toward the development of a saliva-based point-of-care sensor device that will enable the detection of early signs of periodontitis, a serious gum infection that can result in dental surgery for a patient if not treated early. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that nearly 50 percent of adults have some form of periodontal disease.

“Periodontitis often progresses without noticeable symptoms, leaving patients to seek professional care only after the periodontium is considerably destroyed,” Wang says. “Due to its multifactorial nature, periodontitis cannot be effectively diagnosed by a single biomarker or a set of markers in one category. Therefore, there is a clinical need to develop a sensor device that measures an array of periodontitis-associated biomarkers in saliva for frequent and longitudinal monitoring.”

Wang and her colleagues will work to develop novel sensor modalities capable of detecting a variety of chemicals in saliva. The sensors will be placed in a microfluidic device—also referred to as a “lab-on-a-chip”—that will be placed inside a toothbrush that will send low-power signals and communication to clinicians using technologies such as Bluetooth and Linux. Data collected from human subjects will inform how machine-learning models are built. The team has received funding support from the Pritzker Institute of Biomedical Science and Engineering via the Exploratory Initiative Program, enabling researchers to initiate the work of developing sensor modalities. It continues to develop proposals for additional funding from the federal government and other sources.

“By integrating research advances in sensing elements, microfluidics, communications, data analysis, and artificial intelligence, we would ultimately like to develop a Smart Total Oral Care (STOC) system that can be used for unobtrusive, accurate, and real-time saliva-based self-monitoring for health care,” Wang says. “Such a device will assist in the modern clinical advancements, such as teledentistry and telemedicine, by which the number or duration of onsite clinical visits will be reduced with such quantitative data in hand. New commercial products can be developed based on the biosensor, such as smart toothbrushes and wearable oral devices similar to nightguards.”

Additional Illinois Tech faculty members involved in the project include Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Abhinav Bhushan; Gladwin Development Chair Assistant Professor of Computer Science Yan Yan; Industry Associate Professor of Information Technology and Management Jeremy Hajek; and from the Department of Chemistry, professors Richard Guan, Ishaque Khan, and Yuanbing Mao, Research Professor John Green, and Associate Professor of Chemistry David Minh.

Pelvic Floor Restoration—with Some Help from Silkworms

Additional research ongoing in Wang’s lab includes a project utilizing silk cocoons from silkworms to support the regeneration and restoration of pelvic floor tissue in women to help treat pelvic organ prolapse. Prolapse occurs when muscles and tissue in the female body weaken and can no longer hold pelvic organs including the uterus, bladder, and rectum in place. Wang says the silk material can help revive the function of fibroblasts—cells that help make up the structural framework of tissue—through an in vitro electrical stimulation process. A cell imbedded fiber matrix can be injected or applied as an internal bandage or implant, and can be repeatedly used to stimulate the cells’ renewal through a medicated electrical stimulation process. The matrices degrade in approximately 20 days and should be replaced by native tissue.

“The use of autologous [patient’s own healthy] cells to treat, for example, connective tissue wounds or disorders is relatively safe and simple,” Wang says, “effectively avoiding complications in other approaches such as immunological rejection of cells derived from other individuals; complicated control of isolation, expansion, and differentiation conditions of stem cells; or heterogeneity between cells of the same type but from different origin.”

The project began with the use of spider silk proteins, but the team later replaced them with silkworm silk proteins, which Wang says are “abundant and cheap” and have proven effective for use in cell stimulation. The silk cocoon research is funded by a $440,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health; collaborators on the project include Anne Sammarco at Rush University Medical Center and Margot Damaser at Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute. The team is also developing flexible, transparent silk films for potential use as corneal scaffolds, contact lens material, and scaffolds for gum healing.

Beyond smart toothbrushes and silk-inspired tissue rejuvenation, Wang and her student researchers are also collaborating on a project with the United States Food and Drug Administration aimed at understanding foodborne virus adhesion to different surfaces. FDA Staff Scientist Carol Shieh is the principal investigator; Wang is the co-PI. They received a $50,000 grant from the FDA through October 2021. Wang and her lab have so far supported the project through research determining the design of a surface’s chemical composition and nanostructure, which she says helped informed options for ways to control viral adhesion and transmission to and from food contact surfaces.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15HD096410. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. Additional research reported in this article was supported by a grant from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under award number FDA-CFSAN-CARTS IF01673. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the FDA.

Photo: Professor of Chemistry Rong Wang