A love for chemistry combined with an aptitude for machines led Princeton, Minnesota, native Kyle Burch to do undergraduate research on anti-counterfeiting technologies in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at South Dakota State University. That experience gave him the opportunity to continue working on the new technology as a graduate research assistant while pursuing a Ph.D. at State.
During his junior year at St. Cloud State University, Burch was doing research with chemistry professor Michael Dvorak to develop and improve instruments that detect specific chemicals. “It was a very informative time and Dr. Dvorak was happy with my work,” said Burch.
Dvorak suggested Burch apply for a summer internship in the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduate program, hosted at SDSU under the direction of professor Brian Logue. The participants did interdisciplinary research to support the South Dakota Center for Security Printing and Anticounterfeiting Technology.
“When I met with Dr. Logue, he said my skillset in analytical chemistry and experience with prototype development would work well for the project,” Burch said. “I have a background in construction as both a carpenter and mason and have experience building stuff. I thought it would be really fun.”
Logue said, “Kyle has a unique interest in machines we don’t often find in chemistry students. He brings hands-on experience in instrumentation along with a strong background in analytical chemistry to the research we are doing to detect counterfeit drugs.”
In summer 2019, Burch spent 10 weeks improving an instrument used to perform a technique called ICECLES—ICE Concentration Linked with Extractive Stirrer—that Logue and his team developed and patented in 2015. The device, which is designed to extract trace chemicals, combines an established method called stir bar sorptive extraction with freezing to concentrate the solution.
“The main power of ICECLES is that as the sample freezes from the bottom to the top, the stir bar rides the ice and grabs the compounds,” explained Burch, whose task was to increase the machine’s processing capacity. “The prototype is automated and self-contained, so it is not susceptible to environmental changes. However, at that time, it had the ability to do only two samples simultaneously.” That was less than the established method.
Burch worked with SDSU associate professor Jay Shore, a physical chemist, and research associate Jason Sternhagen of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, to increase the maximum sample volume from 10 to 50 milliliters. “We made really good progress—multiplying the volume by five times was huge,” Burch said.
Before Burch left Brookings to finish his bachelor’s degree at St. Cloud State, Logue asked if he would be interested in coming back for graduate school and working on ICECLES and other analytical chemistry research as a graduate assistant in his lab. The assistantship covers tuition and provides a monthly stipend. Burch accepted and began the bachelor’s to doctorate program, which typically takes five years to complete, in fall 2020.
Determining chemical fingerprint
Through a new multi-institutional state research center, the South Dakota Center for Understanding and Disrupting the Illicit Economy, Logue and his research group are determining the chemical composition of drugs from various manufacturers to come up with a chemical fingerprint that will then allow them to identify counterfeit drugs.
The ICECLES technology plays an essential role in concentrating and extracting the compounds for the chemical fingerprint. “We have changed how the stirring mechanism works, making it more efficient,” Burch explained. While the first prototype enhanced the signal sensitivity by 400 times, “we are now up to 2,000 times (greater sensitivity).”
That’s important when detecting counterfeit drugs, specifically those containing tiny but lethal amounts of fentanyl, Burch said. “Being able to enhance the signal means that those small amounts will not be a limiting factor because we will be able to utilize a majority of the sample.”
His next goal is to improve the consistency of chemical fingerprints derived from different brands of aspirin, which is being used to show the methodology works. Though the initial focus is on identifying counterfeit prescription drugs, the technique will eventually be applied to controlled substances.
After completing his doctorate, Burch would like to manage a laboratory. “I enjoy the technical aspects of being in the lab, but also the personal aspect of managing people.”