New Joint Research Merges Solar Power Research and Cancer Treatments


Michigan State University researchers Sophia Lunt and Richard Lunt, a married couple, work in different departments, but have found a common ground that could lead to cancer diagnostics and therapies.

Richard Lunt is the Johansen Crosby Endowed Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. His research is traditionally focused on materials used in solar energy production.

Sophia Lunt is an assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, as well as Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. Her research focuses on cancer metabolism and personalized therapy.

Together, they are working on methods to detect and kill cancer cells using technology more typically used in solar power.

“We’ve tested this concept in breast, lung and skin cancer cell lines and mouse models, and so far it’s all looking remarkably promising,” said Sophia Lunt.

Part of the work is involved in theranostics—the use of fluorescent dyes. However, many of the fluorescent dyes used are toxic to cells, are not bright enough, and do not penetrate tissue well. The Lunts were able to optoelectronically “tune” organic salt nanoparticles for better control in cancer research. They found that by tuning the nanoparticles into a safer, nontoxic zone also resulted in improved imaging; tuning them into a light-activated range showed positive for on-site cancer treatments.

“This work has the potential to transform fluorescent probes for broad societal impact through applications ranging from biomedicine to photocatalysis—the acceleration of chemical reactions with light,” Richard Lunt said. “Our solar research inspired this cancer project, and in turn, focusing on cancer cells has advanced our solar cell research; it’s been an amazing feedback loop.”

The research has been published in the journal Scientific Reports. The authors write, “Fluorescent dyes offer great potential as both diagnostic and therapeutic agents, and the combined application has been termed ‘theranostics.’ These compounds can be used to improve cancer diagnoses, assist with image-guided surgery, and treat tumors by photodynamic therapy (PTD).”

The married couple discuss their research together during their daily, rain-or-shine two-mile walks. They met while Princeton University, then Richard moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for postdoctoral research and they scheduled daily phone calls. When they both moved to MSU, they began taking daily walks to talk about their day instead of the accustomed phone calls. Sophia indicates that the three keys to the walks are intentional curiosity, perseverance and the merging of different fields and perspectives.

“We talk science, strategic plans for our careers and our various grants,” Sophia Lunt said. “We ping ideas off each other. Our continual conversations brainstorming ideas on a particular topic or challenge often lead to those exciting ‘aha’ moments.”

Richard Lunt designs the molecules used in their research. Babak Borhan, an MSU chemist, synthesizes and improves them. Sophia Lunt tests the molecules in cancer cell liens and mouse models.

The researchers will work to improve the molecules’ effectiveness, lower toxicity and decrease side effects. They have applied to patent the research and hope to take them into clinical trials.

“Though that will take many more walks,” Richard Lunt said.

Back to news