David Whitten stood beside an autoclave, a gray, box-shaped machine that looked like a top-load washing machine, in a laboratory in the Centennial Engineering Building Friday morning.
Next to the autoclave, test tubes sat on top of a medium-sized white fridge.
There was an orange sticker on the fridge that said “BIOHAZARD.”
“That’s where we store our E. coli and our MRSA,” Whitten said as he pointed to the fridge. “We only have our anthrax strains in north campus.”
Whitten has been playing around with these germs for his research.
Luckily, he has found a way to exterminate them in a snap.
Whitten, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UNM, has invented a material made of conjugated polyelectrolyte (CPE) which kills microorganisms and viruses on contact.
“This is something that people have been interested in for a long time and still they can’t quite explain,” he said. “We decided to look at how they react with natural substances, like bacteria, and we found that this material tend to coat bacteria. And when we radiate them, we found that they kill the bacteria.”
Whitten, 75, started research on CPE in 2003 when he was still part of QTL Biosystems, a Santa Fe-based company that specializes in scientific research. When the company moved out of state in 2005, Whitten decided to continue his research at UNM.
An organic chemical, CPE has alternating double and single bonds which enable it to absorb visible light, Whitten said. He said CPE attracts and kills germs as soon as light hits the material. And since CPE is soluble in water, it can be used as a convenient and effective disinfectant, he said.
Whitten said the research is funded by the federal government.
“Our work is actually supported by the Department of Defense,” he said. “Right now, we probably get a couple hundred thousand dollars a year from them. In the almost eight years that I’ve been here, we’ve already spent about two million dollars.”
A Capitol Hill native, Whitten obtained his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in organic chemistry from Johns Hopkins University. After receiving his Ph.D., he joined the army and worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for two years.
Whitten pursued his post-doctorate studies at the California Institute of Technology. In 2005, Whitten moved to UNM.
And he loves New Mexico, he said.
“I’ve had other opportunities to travel around the world and all over the U.S. but … (New Mexico) is really special,” he said
Whitten said his research team is studying other applications of CPE, such as combining it with fabric for protective clothing. But he said commercializing CPE as a product is not a piece of cake.
“The problem is taking something from a laboratory and putting it into a product is really complicated,” he said. “You’ve probably heard about FDA and EPA regulations. We don’t want to just start manufacturing compounds that are terribly dangerous.”
UNM’s Science and Technology Corporation is helping him find companies that are interested in licensing CPE, Whitten said.
Whitten said his team is composed of three graduate and two undergraduate students. He said that because of the research conducted by the students, the work has gone successfully.
“If you can effectively use research that you’re doing to educate students, then I’d say that it’s really being a success,” he said. “I’ve had really good students here and I think that several of my students are going to go on to do really good things.”
Whitten said he is optimistic about the future of CPE. And he said he will continue on his research as much as he can.
“This is probably the most fulfilling research I’ve ever been involved with,” he said.