A University of Wisconsin researcher won a National Academy of Sciences award for innovative young researchers for an invention that could one day lead to finding a cure for type 2 diabetes.

UW Professor of Chemistry Martin Zanni received the 2011 Award of Initiatives in Research for developing a technique to more easily and accurately measure the way proteins aggregate to cause diabetes.

Zanni said the method uses lasers to study molecular structures and has also been applied in researching how the electrons in plant cell materials create energy from sunlight.

He said he is hopeful the research being conducted at UW will be applied to still other fields of laboratory experimentation and practical applications.

“We’re hoping the impact the research is having will translate into a new community,” Zanni said. “The award speaks highly to the applications the research in having.”

He added the technique currently is only utilized by about 40 research groups at the university level because using the device remains technologically challenging.

In the near future, he said he hopes to patent and commercialize the device to make it more widely available to industrial scientists across the country and around the world.

By making the device more user-friendly and accessible to non-experts, Zanni said advances in researching influenza, diabetes and solar cells could be made.

According to a UW release, the award also comes with a $15,000 prize from Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs.

Zanni previously won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the White House Office of Science and Technology, the release said.

Zanni said he was grateful for the contributions of UW graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in developing the device.

He added the next objective for further research is to improve the technique for measuring a single layer of cells on a surface by distinguishing individual molecules.

The research team will also begin testing molecules that may help develop pharmaceuticals to halt the aggregation of proteins to cause type 2 diabetes, he said.

Zanni added it was especially exciting to receive the award because it is highly competitive and is only awarded in the field of optics every four years.