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COLLEGE STATION --

Driven by a deep-rooted desire to heal people, Texas A&M University chemist Dr. Agustín Díaz says he originally wanted to be a medic.

As a young premed student at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras in 2000, Díaz was shadowing doctors in an emergency room when a physician called him over to observe one patient's rather gruesome head trauma. The experience would ultimately change Díaz's life.

"I just completely passed out," Díaz recalls. "I can't stand blood; I don't know what I was thinking."

In addition to lots of blood, Díaz says he saw the light, viewing the incident as a sign to reevaluate his career plans. Rather than provide medical treatment, he instead opted to improve it, putting his future in chemistry and choosing a more fundamental, behind-the-scenes avenue that still would allow him to impact a larger number of people while hopefully avoiding the healthcare profession's gorier elements.

More than a decade later as a postdoctoral research associate for the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry, Díaz's innovative work with nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery in humans has earned him one of the most competitive fellowships in the country, the prestigious Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Designed to generate increased minority representation in college faculties, the fellowship is awarded through the National Academies and the National Research Council at the predoctoral, dissertation and postdoctoral levels to individuals who demonstrate superior academic achievement with a commitment to research and education. The Ford Foundation awards 20 postdoctoral fellowships each year, and Díaz's proposal, "Surface Decoration of Inorganic Layered Nanoplatelets: Improving Applicability for Drug Delivery," received one of the two fellowships awarded for physical science in 2011.

Díaz ranks as the inaugural recipient within the College of Science and only the eighth winner university-wide since 1980, when the NRC began administering the program and maintaining online, searchable records.

"This is a really important fellowship, so I was really, really happy," Díaz says. "If I can make my research work, I could affect millions; the impact factor is a lot greater. That is my driving force, to help people."

The grant provides a $1,500 allowance matched by the department to support Díaz in his continued research. The funds also cover his salary for the full academic year as well as all expenses to attend the national Conference of Ford Fellows held last October in Irvine, Calif.

Díaz's research focuses on the modification of tiny inorganic nanoparticles encapsulating anti-cancer drugs into zirconium phosphate nanoplatelets and used for targeted delivery purposes in dealing with aggressive breast and ovarian tumors -- treatments that one day could become a cutting-edge alternative to chemotherapy. This work, recently published in the February 7 issue of the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Chemical Communications, calls for the drugs to be inserted in between the many layers of a phosphate-based nanoplatelet, which then acts as the delivery agent inside the human body. By functionalizing the surface of the drug-packed nanoplatelet with biomolecules and manipulating its size to fit into the spacious cancer tissue -- the cells of which are more porous than normal tissue -- Díaz says it can be directly targeted to affect only the cancerous cells with no harm to the healthy tissue.

Díaz notes that, in addition to being more porous, cancer cells also have a lower pH level (meaning they are more acidic) than normal cells. Therefore, another alternative would be to introduce in capsule-form drugs with a similar pH level, thereby avoiding normal tissue and targeting only malignant areas. Díaz currently is experimenting with methods to modify the particles to make them even more specific to each cancer and is testing his drug-delivery methods with other medicines.

"There are many side effects to chemotherapy, and most of the time it's because the radiation is not targeted specifically to the tumor cells," Díaz says. "This way, you can avoid all the side effects related to the lack of specificity."

Despite Díaz's relatively brief tenure at Texas A&M (he joined the department in 2010), he already has become an established figure within its research circles. Much of his analysis with the surface chemistry of the zirconium phosphate nanoparticles was crafted under the tutelage of his two mentors -- Dr. James D. Batteas, an associate professor of chemistry who Díaz describes as "a great role model for aspiring chemists," and Dr. Abraham Clearfield, distinguished professor of chemistry and an international pioneer in many areas of inorganic chemistry research.

"Dr. Díaz is a highly talented young scientist with great enthusiasm for his work, excellent mentoring skills, great chemical intuition and a never-ending source of ideas," says Batteas, a specialist in surface chemistry and nanoscale materials and devices. "This combination makes him an outstanding asset to the chemistry community."

Díaz credits Clearfield for providing him with the platform to experiment with the idea of using an inorganic particle such as zirconium, a heavy metal, for medicinal purposes -- a generally unconventional idea in the scientific community. The two first met in 2008 when Díaz, on a research scholarship, came to Texas A&M to finish his Ph.D.

"As you can see, his goals are extremely ambitious," Clearfield says. "I find with such students, you just give them a start and let them use their imagination to create. So, when you combine Agustin's love of chemistry and his great ideas, why would you not give him a fellowship?"

Beyond his faculty and research peers at Texas A&M, Díaz quickly is becoming just as recognizable a face among students. As a member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SANCAS), an organization for underrepresented minority students from different science-related majors to come together for academic and social activities, Díaz devotes much of his spare time to chemistry tutoring. This passion also dates back to his undergraduate student days in Puerto Rico, during which he would help students with limited resources by tutoring and hosting chemistry workshops around his community. In addition, he often spoke to underrepresented high school student groups about college life in general, acting as a voice of encouragement and urging them at least to consider higher education and the possibilities it could provide.

Reflecting back, Díaz says the true reward is in knowing he has been able to play a role in helping less fortunate students realize that their highest potential is attainable despite whatever economic adversities they may face -- and that the possibilities for future impact are limitless.

"It makes you feel a fire inside to be able to share your knowledge with other people and make them realize what they could actually do for our society," he says. "Maybe I'll never be able to find a cure for cancer, but perhaps one of them can."

The Ford Foundation, an independent, nonprofit organization headquartered in New York, works to increase the national presence of minorities in college and university faculties by increasing the educational benefits of diversity and the number of professors who use diversity as an educational resource for the improvement of academia. Each year it receives about 40,000 proposals and makes about 1,400 grants, awarding $422 million worldwide in 2011 alone.

For more information on Ford Foundation Fellowships, visit http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/FordFellowships/index.htm.

To learn more about Díaz and his research, go to http://about.me/agustindiaz.

To view a copy of the ChemComm paper involving Díaz, Batteas and Clearfield, click here.

-aTm-

Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Hands-On Help

    Texas A&M University chemist Dr. Agustín Díaz's innovative work with nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery designed to combat cancer has earned him one of the most competitive fellowships in the country, the prestigious Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. He ranks as the first recipient from the Texas A&M College of Science and only the eighth university-wide since 1980.

  • Targeted Approach

    Díaz explains some of the finer details of his research to fellow Batteas Research Group member Stephanie Skiles.

  • Dr. Agustin Diaz

  • Dr. James D. Batteas

  • Dr. Abraham Clearfield

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