The Future of the Shaw Institute Just Arrived


Dr. Charlie RolskyExciting times are here at the Shaw Institute, as we have just taken delivery of a new piece of lab equipment that is a true game changer. In fact, it’s probably the most important addition to our research capabilities in our organization’s history. What is it? It’s a brand new spectrometer. This new piece of lab gear will enable us to analyze human tissue, and other bio matter, for contaminants. More on that later.

Most of us know a thing or two about the presence and impact of plastic pollution on the planet. We also know how those larger polluted plastics can have devastating effects on ecosystems and communities around the world. What we know less about are the effects of those smaller plastics, called nano- or microplastics (NMPs). Research has demonstrated some very concerning impacts these small plastics might have on the world around us, but more work is needed.

Headlines are all over the place are highlighting new sources of NMPs, like plastic water bottles, beer, salt, even honey. The question remains, what effects do these have on human health? This is an important one. One that we’ve set out to shed light on.

There are three main routes that these small particles can reach us:

  1. By ingesting them
  2. Breathing them in
  3. And, if small enough, they can enter through our skin.

At the very least, foreign particles entering our bodies are thought to produce an immune response and/or inflammation. Scientists are concerned about more harmful effects since these particles have a high surface area and an affinity to adsorb dangerous pathogens, chemicals, and other harmful pollutants.

We started to explore this by creating a method to extract NMPs from human tissues. Word quickly got out and we were contact by prominent, pediatric researchers and physicians from NYU Langone Health, who were interested in how plastic exposure might start in expecting mothers and end up traveling to the fetus, potentially causing health issues along the way. We just finished the first stage of this project and are excited to share the results very soon.

We then got contacted by, yet another university also concerned about the impact of NMPs on human health. A gastroenterologist at Harvard University’s Medical School shared his fears of the impacts of these small plastics on people battling ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, and cancer, and wished to send us human tissue samples from operations such as bowel resections. Both collaborations are unique in that they incorporate human tissues that are removed from the body for medical reasons but could contain wealth of information pertaining to human health.

It became clear to me quickly that this is a major area of concern and the Shaw Institute needed to meet it head on.

Spectrometer Takes Our Research to A Higher Level

Therefore, we made the purchase of the aforementioned spectrometer instrument, from a highly regarded scientific instrument company called Shimadzu. The spectrometer, more directly called a Pyrolysis GC/MS (gas chromatography–mass spectrometry), is on the cutting edge of plastics research. One challenge in the past has revolved around visibly finding and analyzing NMPs found in a given location. This new instrument essentially evaporates the sample and collects chemical signatures from the polymers, which is read as a unit of mass.

We’re nearly out of room and are actively pursuing additional lab space to house our new instrument. This spectrometer will better serve our research needs. It’s allowed us to apply for major grant funding through agencies such as the NIH and NOAA, and it also significantly benefits Blue Hill, as well as our state. The Shaw Institute has gotten commitments from major research companies and businesses to conduct demos in Blue Hill, from researchers wishing to use the instrument, and even from regional conferences who wish to see the instrument in person and hold events around it. We feel that this will bring visitors and even much more positive attention to our beautiful part of Downeast Maine. This is just the beginning.

We’re excited to share this growth with you as we continue to build Shaw Institute’s Blue Hill Research Center. Stay tuned!