Neural engineering is an emerging discipline that uses engineering techniques to investigate the function and manipulate the behavior of the central or peripheral nervous systems. Neural engineering is highly interdisciplinary and relies on expertise from computational neuroscience, experimental neuroscience, clinical neurology, electrical engineering and signal processing of living neural tissue, and encompasses elements from robotics, computer engineering, neural tissue engineering, materials science, and nanotechnology. In order for neural prostheses to augment or restore damaged or lost functions of the nervous system they need to be able to perform two main functions: stimulate the nervous system and record its activity. To do that, neural engineers have to gain a full understanding of the fundamental mechanisms and subtleties of cell-to-cell signaling via synaptic transmission, and then develop the technologies to replicate these mechanisms with artificial devices and interface them to the neural system at the cellular level. A group of European researchers has now shown that carbon nanotubes may become the ideal material for repairing damaged brain tissue.
Miniaturizing traditional laboratory assays to automated lab-on-a-chip devices holds tremendous potential for enabling multiplex, efficient, cost-effective and accurate pathogen sensing systems for both security and medical applications. These sensors could be used to detect bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, but also other pathogens that could be used for bioterrorism. Traditional identification methods required time intensive cell culturing processes but novel pathogen sensors based on nanomaterials are promising vastly improved and speedy detection technologies. A recent example is a label-free sensor chip assembled from peptide nanotubes that enables the electrical detection of viruses with an extremely low detection limit. This could lead to compact super-sensitive pathogen detection chips for point of care applications that have a high tolerance against false-positive signals.
Quantum dots are emerging as an important class of nanoparticles with applications ranging from medicine to energy. These nanocrystals possess size tunable optical and electronic properties resulting from quantum confinement which allow them to be suitable candidates for applications in solar cells and light emitting devices. For instance, quantum dots have been identified as important light harvesting material for building highly efficient solar cells - when exposed to light at certain wavelengths they can generate free electrons and create an electrical current. Having a high resistance to photobleaching, quantum dots (QDs) also are attractive materials for optoelectronics and in vivo biosensing. Researchers have now demonstrated that QDs, in addition to being excellent fluorescent probes, can be used as photoacoustic (which combines the advantages of optical absorption contrast with ultrasonic spatial resolution for deep imaging) and photothermal contrast agents and sensitizers, thereby providing an opportunity for multimodal high resolution photoacoustic/photothermal-fluorescent imaging as well as sensitizers in nanotherapeutic applications.
Developed originally for the surface finishing industry, diamond nanoparticles are now finding new and far-reaching applications in modern biomedical science and biotechnologies. Due to its excellent biocompatibility, diamond has been called the Biomaterial of the 21st Century and medical diamond coatings are already heavily researched for implants and prostheses. Nanoscale diamond is also being discussed as a promising cellular biomarker and a non-toxic alternative to heavy metal quantum dots. Further extending the nanomedical use of diamond, researchers now have demonstrated a nanodiamond-embedded device that could be used to deliver chemotherapy drugs locally to sites where cancerous tumors have been surgically removed.
Mesoporous materials, i.e. materials with pores that measure less than 50 nanometers in size, have been researched extensively for at least 20 years now. Especially mesoporous silicates, due to their large surface area, their uniform pore size, and the accessibility of these pores, have become very popular as catalyst materials and excellent dug delivery candidates. Despite of the long research history of mesoporous silica materials and their biomedical potential, there have been only few reports on actual in vivo applications. Although the theory looks good, there are several practical obstacles for mesoporous silica materials to be used as drug carriers or for instance as in vivo cancer targeting agents. Researchers who tried making small mesoporous silica particles with sizes of around 100 nm often ended up with much larger lumps of aggregated particles. These larger chunks cannot be used because, due to their size, they are easily trapped in the body's defense mechanism, the reticuloendothelial system (RES). Researchers in South Korea have now reported the fabrication of discrete, monodisperse, and precisely size-controllable core?shell nanoparticles that are smaller than 100 nm, by using single magnetite nanocrystals as core and a mesoporous silica shell.
Bone grafts are second only to blood transfusions on the list of transplanted materials. With bone grafts, a surgeon replaces missing bone with material from the patient's own body, or a synthetic or natural substitute. Traditional tissue repair techniques, especially with synthetic materials, may lead to poor integration with the existing bone or tissue structure, potentially transfers dangerous pathogens into the body, and sometimes lead to a complete rejection of the graft. To minimize these harmful side effects, researchers are developing sophisticated tissue engineering techniques based on the construction of three-dimensional scaffolds out of biomaterials to provide mechanical support and guide cell growth into new tissues or organs. In the quest to make bone, joint and tooth implants almost as good as nature's own version, scientists are turning to nanotechnology. They have found that the response of host organisms to nanomaterials is different than that observed with conventional materials. The surface nano-characteristics of biomaterials are increasingly recognized as crucial factors with regard to tissue acceptance and cell behaviors. While this new field of nanomedical implants is in its very early stage, it holds the promise of novel and improved implant materials.
The study of individual live cells is a hugely important scientific task and essential to the field of molecular biology and biomedical research. Among the most significant technical challenges for performing successful live-cell imaging experiments is to maintain the cells in a healthy state and functioning normally on the microscope stage while being illuminated. Especially if scientists want to look into cellular processes that occur inside cells in their natural state and that cannot be observed by traditional cytological methods. Quantum dots (QDs), also called nanocrystals, hold increasing potential for in vitro and in vivo cellular imaging. For instance, we have previously reported about how researchers have used QDs for in vivo imaging of embryonic stem cells in mice, a novel technique that has opened up the possibility of using QDs for fast and accurate imaging applications in stem cell therapy. The usefulness of quantum dots comes from their peak emission frequency's extreme sensitivity to both the dot's size and composition. QDs have been touted as possible replacements for organic dyes in the imaging of biological systems, due to their excellent fluorescent properties, good chemical stability, broad excitation ranges and high photobleaching thresholds.
Genomics and proteomics, the studies of genes and proteins, provide the underlying basis for many advances in drug development and effective treatments of diseases. These studies heavily rely on unveiling the behavior of a single DNA or protein in an investigative sample. You could compare this challenge to somehow finding, then catching and monitoring a particular fish in a vast ocean. The scientific term for 'catching the fish' is 'immobilization' - a powerful technique for the study of biochemical systems that allows for the continuous observation of dynamic behavior of a chosen target. Immobilization methods anchor the to be observed molecule onto a surface in order to restrict it from escaping the observation volume. Researchers have now developed a new platform which consists of a carbon nanotube nanoneedle for capturing, isolating and measuring the activity of miniscule amounts of proteins.