Carbon monoxide (CO) is known for its toxicity by inhalation, so it is perhaps surprising that it is actually generated in the body as a gaseous messenger to regulate cellular processes. Since this discovery, much remains unknown about its role and mode of action, partly due to the difficulty in detecting CO in cells. Elevated levels of CO in cells are known to be an indicator of disease and inflammation and so its measurement provides important diagnostic information.
With collaborators at Imperial College and in Spain, Dr Wilton-Ely's research group have applied their successful design of sensitive and selective probes for CO sensing in air to the monitoring of this gas in cells. Detection by microscope is achieved using the fluorescence response of the probe, which ‘lights up’ with CO under light of the right wavelength. This fluorescent unit can also act as a ‘molecular rotor’, which rotates at different rates depending on the viscosity of the surrounding cellular medium. The rate of rotation leads to a variation in the lifetime of the fluorescence observed and this can be calibrated to measure viscosity. Using this novel approach, simultaneous readings of both CO and viscosity in cells have been achieved for the first time.The group are currently working with cancer researchers to explore the role of CO in immune suppression, which could lead to more effective cancer treatments.
This innovation could also allow relatively low-cost equipment (such as a microscope with a suitable light source) to be used to provide information on both these markers of disease, for example in biopsies, without the need for analysis in a specialist lab. The relatively low cost instrumentation needed could make a significant difference for diagnosis in parts of the world where specialist labs are only available in major cities.
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Dr James Wilton-Ely grew up in Yorkshire and attended Beverley Grammar School, where Smithson Tennant FRS, discoverer of the elements iridium and osmium, was a former pupil. He received his BSc in Chemistry with a Year in Europe from Imperial College London, spending his year abroad in Florence, Italy. He remained at Imperial College for his PhD studies with Professor Tony Hill. Following a position as a Fixed-Term Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry at the same institution, he was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship to work with Professor Hubert Schmidbaur at the Technical University Munich.
James returned to the UK to work with Professor David Cole Hamilton at the University of St Andrews. This was followed by an independent Ramsay Fellowship at University College London (2003–5) before moving to Oxford University in 2005 as Fitzjames Fellow in Inorganic Chemistry at the Chemistry Research Laboratory and Merton College. In 2009, he was appointed to a Lectureship at Imperial College London, where he is currently Reader in Inorganic Chemistry. He leads a team of 16 researchers investigating the application of metal complexes and metal nanoparticles to sensing (of carbon monoxide and heavy metals), medical imaging (MRI, PET, optical) and catalysis (platform chemicals from biomass and recovery and reuse of metals). He is a Director of the MRes in Green Chemistry and founded the MRes in Catalysis and the MRes in Advanced Molecular Synthesis courses at Imperial College. He is currently Director of Postgraduate Studies for the department.