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Alumna Dr. Nako Nakatsuka (PhD ’17 Andrews/P. Weiss Groups), a senior scientist at ETH Zürich, is named one of MIT Technology Review’s list of 35 Innovators Under 35.

Nakatsuka is being recognized in the “2021 Pioneers” category for her research on miniature biosensors that could give scientists better insight into depression and dementia.

According to the MIT Technology Review website, their 35 Innovators Under 35 list is their yearly opportunity to take a look at not just where technology is now, but where it’s going and who’s taking it there. More than 500 people are nominated every year, and from this group the editors pick the most promising 100 to move on to the semifinalist round. Their work is then evaluated by our panel of judges who have expertise in such areas as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, software, energy, and materials. With the insight gained from these rankings, the editors pick the final list of 35.

Nakatsuka, currently a senior scientist at ETH Zürich in the Laboratory of Biosensors and Bioelectronics led by Professor Janos Vörös, received a B.S. in chemistry with a bioengineering focus from Fordham University in 2012 and when on to receive her Ph.D. in chemistry with a specialization in biophysics from UCLA in December 2017 working with Professors Anne Andrews and Paul Weiss. As an undergraduate student researcher, Nakatsuka harnessed peptide-based biosystems for tissue engineering, drug delivery, and gene therapy and during her Ph.D. career she designed, fabricated, and validated DNA aptamer-chip-based technologies to investigate brain chemistries. To learn more about her research, visit Nakatsuka’s website.

From MIT Technology Review (by Russ Juskalian):

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Her miniature biosensors could give scientists better insight into depression and dementia.

Nako Nakatsuka is building tiny sensors that can detect chemical changes in the brain and other parts of the body more precisely than ever before. Scientists can use such information to help them understand and treat conditions like depression and dementia. Compared with earlier sensors, Nakatsuka’s are better at differentiating between structurally similar chemicals, like neurotransmitters and their precursors and metabolites.

For now, her sensors are used to take measurements on samples in the lab, but the technology is being refined to work directly in the body and on a wider range of chemicals.

Nakatsuka built her sensors using molecules called aptamers, which can be designed to have strong affinity for specific targets. She first used an aptamer constructed from DNA that changes its shape in the presence of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in bodily functions like sleep and appetite, and in conditions like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Later she developed a way to attach the aptamer to the opening of a tiny pipette, just 10 nanometers in diameter, hooked up to an electrical circuit. As the aptamer changes its shape in the presence of serotonin, it alters the electrical current. The sensor can measure samples in brain fluid or tissue, or potentially directly next to individual neurons in a lab dish or in the brain.

“This might help us to better understand Parkinson’s and other diseases,” Nakatsuka says. Her sensors could be used to monitor how neurons in or from a patient with such a disease function in real time. And since aptamers can be used in all sorts of tests, Nakatsuka’s technology could lead to faster, cheaper, and more accurate detection for all kinds of medical conditions and infections.


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Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,