As a PhD student interested in bioengineering and the potential health benefits of new therapies, Lucas Portelli says he “basically builds equipment to expose biological materials to electromagnetic fields.”
It isn’t quite that simple of course, but Portelli has spent the last four years at CU-Boulder researching the effects of magnetic and electromagnetic fields on living organisms. To do that, he has built a variety of devices that carefully control exposure along with temperature, frequency, amplitude, and various other factors.
“We need to develop these tools to study the effects of magnetic fields on cells if we want to explore their therapeutic potential,” Portelli says.
Although he hasn’t discovered a new cancer treatment just yet, he is getting some interesting results that have biologists paying attention to his work.
Working with Distinguished Professor Frank Barnes as his advisor, in one of his studies, Portelli looked at 21 incubators used in biology research and found significant variation in the characteristics of the magnetic and electromagnetic fields bathing the cellular samples inside them.
These fields varied so much in different areas of each incubator—in locations that are only centimeters apart—and between identical incubators located in the same laboratory, that Portelli believes at least some of the difference in cell growth that has traditionally been attributed to biological variation can actually be traced to differences in the background magnetic fields.
Portelli followed up by designing and building a chamber that can be placed inside any conventional incubator to shield biological specimens from these altered magnetic environments and better control experiments. These “clean” magnetic and electromagnetic environments have the potential to allow researchers to detect more subtle biological effects than is now possible. This may have great impact in biological research in general as reduced variability is always desired.
With careful steps and painstaking attention to detail, he also is finding a variety of correlations between such factors as temperature, time, and frequency of oscillation and the ability of cells to perform several biological functions. “Utilizing physical stimuli to signal biological systems is an understudied, yet promising arena with great therapeutic potential,” Portelli says.
Some of this work recently won him second place in both the student presentation and poster competitions at the Bioelectromagnetics Society’s 34th annual meeting in Brisbane, Australia.
Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Portelli moved with his family to Guatemala City when he was 8 years old. He had no access to a computer and few other resources, but he enjoyed building electrical gadgets in his spare time, along with practicing judo, a sport in which he received several awards, including national and Central American champion.
“Healing is my goal,” Portelli says of his interest in electronics, reaching for a simple electrical stimulator in his desk drawer that he built to help a family member deal with chronic pain.
After earning bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and electronics with honors, Portelli spent the next four years teaching as an assistant professor at the Universidad Del Valle de Guatemala, while also working as operations manager for the telephone company.
He needed educational support to continue his education, and eventually he spoke to Professor Barnes at CU-Boulder, a member of the National Academy of Engineering who is widely known for his work in bioelectromagnetics, including the possibility of adverse health effects from high-power transmission lines. Barnes funded him to come to CU-Boulder, where he has received a series of merit fellowships from his department and the graduate school.
His work has been partially supported by Professor Barnes' 2004 Gordon Prize, the University of Colorado Engineering Excellence Fund, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training program, the Department of Elecrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering, and the National Institutes of Health.
“I’m having the time of my life,” says Portelli, who serves as president of CU’s bioelectromagnetics student group as well. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do.”