Imagine being hospitalized, but knowing that the standard antibiotic the doctor gives you might not work because the drug hasn’t been properly stored or the medicine might be falsified. It’s a very real problem in developing countries, but Hamline undergraduate chemistry major Sarah Bliese is at the forefront of trying to change that.
“A lot of these antibiotics are left at room temperature which can cause the active ingredients to become degraded and ineffective so you don’t know what the quality is by the time they are given to patients,” Bliese said.
Hamline’s robust science programs offer undergraduate students a variety of hands-on testing opportunities in the lab, as well as opportunities to conduct their own collaborative research projects under the supervision of faculty. Hamline is one of the only institutions in the nation where the University of Notre Dame sends pharmaceutical samples for students to analyze and send back results. Hamline Chemistry Professor Dr. Deanna O’Donnell, who graduated from Notre Dame and who has strong connections there, recognized Bliese’s abundant skills in analytical chemistry early on. Professor O’Donnell encouraged her to apply for a summer research position with Dr. Marya Lieberman at Notre Dame.
“I could not have anticipated how much the experience working at Notre Dame would have transformed Sarah, not to mention the opportunities it would open up for,” Professor O’Donnell said.
For two summers, Bliese and Dr. Lieberman developed a test card to easily, quickly, and inexpensively determine if certain medicines are degraded or falsified. Last summer, Bliese and Lieberman traveled to Kenya to test the cards in clinical environments.
“I think actually seeing the patients and hearing that every single patient in that ward received ceftriaxone (an antibiotic) at some point was really significant to me,” Bliese said. “It kind of put into perspective, not only the issue of what happens when the medicine is degraded, but just how many people are exposed to these possibly degraded medicines without knowing if they’re going to be effective.”
The test card Bliese and Lieberman developed is about the size of an index card and can complete 12 unique tests in three minutes simply by swiping the crushed drug across the card and dipping it in water. The reagents are carried up the device and react with the drug, showing color changes to indicate if chemical compounds of the pharmaceutical are present. Bliese said although working in Kenya was particularly challenging because of the limited lab equipment and frequent power outages, she thinks it made her a better scientist.
“There was one time when the hospital actually ran out of water,” Bliese said. “So there are things like that that happen, and so everything is so much harder for the medical workers there.”
Working through the challenges helped Bliese gain independence and confidence in the lab because she realized she could solve many problems on her own instead of asking for assistance. After their time in Kenya, Bliese traveled to London as Lieberman’s teaching assistant, and together they presented how to use and read the analytical test card device to members of the World Health Organization and Interpol. In addition, Bliese registered to present her research poster at the 2016 American Chemical Society national conference, and was then selected to take part in a press conference about her research at the event. Bliese said she never expected to work on a research project that would elicit so much attention and support from people across the globe.
Bliese’s research project developing the test cards at Notre Dame led her to a new senior research project at Hamline. She is currently using a portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy in the lab to test pharmaceuticals for chemical components that are not the active pharmaceutical ingredient. Bliese’s new research project was possible because Dr. O’Donnell partnered with Dr. Lieberman to test tablets collected from Kenya as a part of Hamline’s Advanced Laboratory Techniques course. When Dr. Lieberman sent Hamline the samples in fall 2015, Dr. O’Donnell led students in a research project to try to test for other components in the tablets using different methods. Bliese is continuing this work for her final senior research project.
“The support that I’ve gotten from Hamline, I’ll never fully be able to describe what it has meant to me because I had no idea what I was doing walking in as a first-generation student,” Bliese said.
Bliese was recently accepted to The University of Notre Dame, where she will pursue her PhD in analytical chemistry after graduating from Hamline.
“I am very proud of her,” Professor O’Donnell said. “I know she will make Hamline proud as she ventures out into the world.”