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URI chemistry professor develops new contaminant detection technique for blood thinner heparin

In 2008, a contaminant eluded the quality safeguards in the pharmaceutical industry and infiltrated a large portion of the supply of the popular blood thinner heparin, sickening hundreds and killing about 100 in the U.S.

It took a team of researchers led by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to confirm the contaminant, a toxin structurally similar to heparin that was traced to a Chinese supplier. But detection of the impurity required “a tremendous effort by heavy hitters in the chemistry world,” said Jason Dwyer, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island.

Dwyer Hagan Khabaeva 0008

Jason Dwyer, associate professor of chemistry, talks with James Hagan, of Nashua, N.H., a doctoral student in Dwyer’s research group, and high school student Anna Khabaeva, of Cranston, who is on a research scholarship.

Photo credit: Photo by Michael Salerno

It took a team of researchers led by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to confirm the contaminant, a toxin structurally similar to heparin that was traced to a Chinese supplier. But detection of the impurity required “a tremendous effort by heavy hitters in the chemistry world,” said Jason Dwyer, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island.

After nearly eight years of research, Dwyer has developed a simpler and quicker method for detecting the impurity in heparin, along with creating a process that could have wider benefits. His research was unveiled today in the prestigious online journal Nature Communications, part of the suite of journals from the publisher of Nature.

“There are tests that are much more sophisticated and expensive to detect the impurity,” said Dwyer, of Providence, R.I. “What we were able to do is – in a very inexpensive and rapid fashion – fingerprint heparin and tell when there is a contaminant in it.”

Jason Dwyer, University of Rhode Island

The research, “Surveying Silicon Nitride Nanopores for Glycomics and Heparin Quality Assurance,” could also be used to analyze the entire class of molecules to which heparin belongs with broad use in biomedical diagnostics, pharmaceuticals and environmental sensing. Dwyer’s wider studies of sugars were bolstered in July by a $318,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

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