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Michael Norton

Dr. Michael Norton

Department of Chemistry, Marshall University
Co-director, Molecular and Biological Imaging Center
Co-founder of Vandalia Research Inc. and Parabon NanoLabs Inc.

Louisiana State University, Shreveport branch, Bachelor of Science in Chemistry
Arizona State University, Doctorate in Chemistry
Naval Weapons Center, Electronic Materials Branch, Calif., National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow

Field of Study:
I’m excited about the field of DNA structural chemistry. We are developing technology that allows us to arrange molecules the way a cell organizes molecules. We see the possibility of using DNA as a kind of self-assembling building material; using DNA as a structural material the way you’d use bricks to make a building. Bricks can be placed by hand; however, a molecule doesn’t know where to go without an address code. We know DNA has a lot of coding capability. You code the DNA with a certain molecular sequence — As, Cs and Ts and Gs — and, if you’ve got the right combination, in principle, that combination will go to only one place inside of a structure. We can attach a molecule covalently – covalent bonds are the forces that hold atoms together strongly — or hardwire it on so that the molecule will go to wherever that DNA addresses it. We will be able to use programmed DNA to build more complex materials.

We are still in the baby steps of this technology. This is only the beginning of an incredible era.

Exciting developments:
Building with molecules: The main thrust of Parabon NanoLabs, one of the companies I founded with colleagues, is in medical applications. Parabon uses a proprietary computer-aided design software to program synthetic DNA to put simple molecules together to build more complex molecules. It’s called nanoscale fabrication of supramolecular structures. Nanoscale means we are working at the size of individual atoms and molecules. The National Science Foundation is supporting us with a Phase II Small Business Innovative Research grant for the development of software and for development of techniques to detect cancer or treat cancer. Our specialization is glioma, a primary brain tumor.

Expanding Marshal’s microscope research center: For years, I have had an interest in microscopy; that is, research using microscopes. I started collecting microscopes to fulfill particular research needs. Our collection, which ranges from electron microscopy to optical microscopy, became large enough to warrant being housed in one location. Now I’m a co-director of Marshall University’s Molecular and Biological Imaging Center (MBIC) at Marshall University. http://www.marshall.edu/mbic/

Our microscopes are available to anyone on campus. For example, we’ve had archeologists who want to find out what a piece of pottery or metallic jewelry is made of without destroying it. By using an electron microscope, they can very quickly identify the elemental composition of any material.

Our most recent triumph was receiving a Major Research Instrumentation award for a $930,000 two-photon confocal optical microscope. It combines pairs of invisible low energy photons into single high energy photons that are very well focused in 3 dimensions inside of the material or cell of interest. It allows very high resolution and very fast imaging for the rapid detection of physiological changes in cells as they happen. The NSF awarded this incredible system to a team composed of myself and Drs. Marcia Harrison, Brian Antonsen and Simon Collier.

Sensing molecules: My research at Marshall includes developing single-molecule sensors. The challenge has been that you’ve got to get that single molecule into position with your detector, or else you’re not going to detect it. It appears that if you have enough of these single-molecule detectors, you can go orders of magnitude below the most sensitive techniques used in medicine at this time. One potential application is in detecting cancer early; new detection methods should enable us to create systems which will detect cancer years before it would be detected by any of the techniques in use today. Also, the U.S. Army Research Office is interested in being able to detect threat agents at much lower levels than any current detectors operate.

Manufacturing DNA: I’m also one of the founders of Vandalia Research, a biotechnology company located in Huntington. Vandalia mass produces specific DNA sequences.  Although many of the applications are proprietary, we have a strong program in DNA vaccine production, this is a real frontier area of research.

My life outside the lab:
I don’t have any! But really, I love to go to movies and restaurants. Huntington has a nice selection of theaters now.  I like how compact Huntington is, how close the university is to the downtown, and the changes that started with Pullman Square, the revitalization of downtown has been fantastic.

And of course traveling in our great state is a wonderful thing to do. For anyone who has not yet done so, I recommend visiting Tamarack in Beckley for West Virginia arts, handmade crafts and specialty foods. Just last night I was wondering whether one should call a meal “fast food" just because it’s very fast. The food court at Tamarack is managed by The Greenbrier. The trout at Tamarack is served quickly but is as good as you’ll find anywhere.

West Virginia’s best kept secret is . . .
The opportunities and high level of biotech capability at Marshall University is not as well known as it deserves to be. The state in general has natural beauty, much of it still unspoiled. For people who are looking for the right size city for them – neither too small a town nor too large a city – Huntington has been a great place to raise kids. I’d recommend it.