To be stuck on gold might seem like an insult, but for Illinois State University’s Jeremy Driskell, it sounds like a way to battle disease.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Driskell’s lab a nearly $345,000 grant to study how proteins stick to tiny particles—or nanoparticles—of gold. “Gold nanoparticles have a lot of promising applications in the medical field,” said Driskell, an associate professor of analytical chemistry. “They have been explored as ways to deliver drugs, or treat cancer, or detect bio-markers of disease.”

The key to using gold nanoparticles is their stickiness. “We coat the surface of gold nanoparticles with proteins so that the nanoparticles only stick to our intended target,” said Driskell, noting that the nanoparticle can adhere to a tumor or cell. “In a solution, gold nanoparticles are very bright, and become a vibrant red, making the things they stick to easier to see.”

With the NSF grant, Driskell’s team of students will modify the charge of the proteins, to see if that will improve the coating on the nanoparticle and therefore the “stickiness” of the nanoparticle toward its target. “The goal is to try and make the absorption stronger, then hopefully it will perform better in those medical applications,” said Driskell. “Our job is to get it to stick to what we want.”

The grant will support a graduate student in Driskell’s lab, and the work of undergraduate students. Driskell also plans to engage high school students in the project through the Illinois Summer Research Academy. “This is a way to teach, train, and interest students in pursuing research, so it is beneficial to them and overall for the field.”

Driskell joined Illinois State in 2011. His work has earned several grants, including one from the National Institute of Justice geared toward helping investigators gather forensic evidence in the field, and from the Department of Defense to assist soldiers exposed to bioterrorism. This is his second grant from the NSF.