Much has been written about the fascinating properties of spider silk, a biopolymer that is stronger than steel and more elastic than rubber. The silken threads possess a unique combination of mechanical properties: strength, extensibility and toughness. Of course this begs the obvious question: How is it possible that spider silk, produced by little creatures that evolved about 400 million years ago, can be as strong as steel - a modern alloy that plays a critical role in our infrastructure and which still attracts considerable R&D investments in its production technology? What is perplexing is that the atomic interactions (H-bonds) in spider silk are actually 100 to 1,000 times weaker than those in steel, or than those in the superfiber Kevlar, where covalent bonds are used. Hydrogen bonds are the basic chemical bonds that hold together proteins, similar to trusses and beams in buildings, and play a key role in controlling the behavior of these structures. In order to reach silk's mechanical properties, most synthetic materials must be much denser, thus much heavier and consume much more energy during their synthesis and transport. New analysis performed at MIT's Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics shows that the intriguing strength of spider silk may be made possible by precisely controlling the number and the geometry of H-bonds at a characteristic length scale. The physical concept is that by making many small elements work together cooperatively, the weaknesses of the individual components can be overcome. All this must happen at the nanoscale in order to be effective.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a cancer treatment that combines a chemical compound, called a photosensitizer, with a particular type of light to kill cancer cells. The treatment works like this: the photosensitizing agent is injected into the bloodstream. The agent is absorbed by cells all over the body, but stays in cancer cells longer than it does in normal cells. One to three days after injection, when most of the agent has left normal cells but remains in cancer cells, the tumor is exposed to light. The photosensitizer in the tumor absorbs the light and produces an active form of oxygen (singlet oxygen) that destroys nearby cancer cells. PDT has been used for the past 30 years and is a treatment that works. PDT takes very little time, is often done as an outpatient, can be accurately targeted to the affected area, can be repeated, and has no long-term side effects. It also isn't as expensive or invasive as some other cancer treatment options. The limitation of this form of cancer treatment is that the light needed to activate most photosensitizers cannot pass through more than one centimeter of tissue. For this reason, PDT is usually used to treat tumors on or just under the skin or on the lining of internal organs or cavities. PDT is also less effective in treating large or deep tumors, because the light cannot pass far into these tumors. Researchers have now proposed a new PDT system in which the light is generated by x-ray scintillation nanoparticles with attached photosensitizers. When the nanoparticle-photosensitizer conjugates are targeted to tumors and stimulated by x-rays during radiotherapy, the particles generate visible light that can activate the photosensitizers for photodynamic therapy. Therefore, the radiation and photodynamic therapies are combined and occur simultaneously, and the tumor destruction can be more efficient. More importantly, it can be used for deep tumor treatment as x-rays can penetrate through tissue.
Walk into an intensive care unit and you're likely to see many of the patients sporting a 'central line' - a plastic tube placed in a large vein that goes to the heart. A central line is a very efficient way to pump nutrients, antibiotics or other drugs directly into the bloodstream. Unfortunately it is also a cause for bloodstream infections (sepsis) and central lines remain an important cause for hospital deaths. An estimated 200,000 bloodstream infections occur each year in the U.S. alone, the majority associated with the presence of an intravascular catheter. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) estimates the yearly death toll from blood infections related to intravenous lines to be as high as 28,000. Numerous pathogens can cause sepsis and the death toll could be reduced if the specific pathogen could be identified more quickly than it is usually done today using blood cultures (the laboratory examination of a blood sample to detect the presence of disease-causing microorganisms). One solution would be to determine the pathogen's DNA, requiring a rapid DNA assay with the potential for mutant identification and multiplexing. Current DNA assays are based on thermal dehybridization or melting of the DNA duplex helix - the melting temperature of DNA is determined by its base sequence - a process that can take up to an hour. Researchers in Germany have developed a novel technique that allows for DNA analysis in the millisecond range. Their method has great potential to vastly improve the speed of pathogen detection.
Hollow polymeric micro- and nanoparticles have numerous existing and many anticipated applications in drug delivery, ranging from the controlled release of drugs, cosmetics, inks, pigments or chemical reagents to the protection of biologically active species, and removal of pollutants. Encapsulation also allows drug targeting via cell and tissue-specific ligands. There is a variety of methods available for synthesis of polymer microspheres with hollow interiors. The hollow particles are most commonly prepared by coating the surfaces of colloidal templates with thin layers of the desired material (or its precursor), followed by selective removal of the templates by means of calcination or chemical etching. For polymers, methods such as emulsion polymerization, phase separation, cross-linking of micelles and self-assembly have also been demonstrated for generating hollow structures. The hollow polymer particles produced by these methods present either a closed-core-shell structure or many small pores on their surface. However, these synthetic approaches present limitations on the choice of polymers that can be produced as hollow microspheres. Also, the number, size and shape of the surface pores can not be easily manipulated. When these materials are used for encapsulation-related applications, the encapsulation of the desired functional materials is usually too slow and/or too labor-intense. These problems have motivated scientists to develop the synthesis of a new class of polymer microspheres, which they called microscale fish bowls. Their unique feature consists in the presence of one big pore on their surface that allows easy and fast diffusion of a functional material to be encapsulated. Another new feature is that this newly developed method presents no limitations on the choice of polymers that can be produced as microscale fish bowls.
Nature has excelled in designing molecular motors, something nanotechnology researchers are still having a hard time with. The potential for nano-actuators (a nanoscale device that creates automatic motion by converting various forms of energy to rotary or linear mechanical energy) is huge - basically any active system that performs some kind of work requires an energy source. Applications reach from simple pumps on lab-on-a-chip devices to move nanoliters of fluid around to nanoscale motors for nanorobotic systems. One of the challenges of designing such a motor for the nano realm is that during the design of a nano-actuator the tradeoffs among range of motion, force, speed (actuation frequency), power consumption, control accuracy, system reliability, robustness, load capacity, etc. must be taken into consideration. Most microscale systems are currently achieved by relatively large external actuators such as syringe pumps, or high voltage power supplies, which negates the advantages of the microfabricated systems. That's why scientists are quite intrigued by the opportunity to use biological organisms to construct mechanical actuators in engineered systems at the micro- or even nanoscale. An extremely powerful biological motor is the bacterial flagellar motor found in organisms such as Escherichia coli or Serratia marcescens. Bacteria draw chemical energy directly from their environment and are able to survive in a wide range of temperature and pH. What makes bacterial propulsion system interesting for nanotechnology researchers is that bacteria are exquisitely sensitive to a wide variety of external stimuli. So far, scientists have managed to control them en masse through light (phototaxis) and chemical (chemotaxis) sensory mechanisms. In a recent example of successful use of live bacteria as mechanical actuators, scientists have built a microfluidic pump powered by self-organizing bacteria.
Biosensors, which incorporate biological probes coupled to a transducer, have been developed during the last two decades for environmental, industrial, and biomedical diagnostics. Typically, signal sizes generated by biomolecular binding tend to be extremely small - this is the limiting factor in reaching high sensitivity for these sensors. The application of nanotechnology to biosensor design and fabrication and therapy at the molecular and cellular level promises to revolutionize bio-diagnostics. By exploiting the large surface-to-volume ratio of nanowires, nanotubes, nanocrystals, nanocantilevers, or quantum dots, researchers were able to build sensors that can measure extremely faint, and otherwise undetectable, signals - for instance a change in electrical conductance - arising from biomolecular binding on the surface of these nanodevices. Highly sensitive nanoprobes and nanosensors have the potential for a wide variety of medical uses at the cellular level. For instance, the potential for monitoring in vivo biological processes within single living cells, e.g. the capacity to sense individual chemical species in specific locations within a cell, will greatly improve our understanding of cellular function, thereby revolutionizing cell biology. One way of enhancing signal strength is on the sensor device itself and researchers have now demonstrated such an on-chip signal amplification using a standard protein on a nanoscale field effect transistor.
For centuries, man has searched for miracle cures to end suffering caused by disease and injury. Many researchers believe nanotechnology applications in medicine may be mankind's first 'giant step' toward this goal. According to Freitas nanomedicine is "...(1) the comprehensive monitoring, control, construction, repair, defense, and improvement of all human biological systems, working from the molecular level, using engineered nanodevices and nanostructures; (2) the science and technology of diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease and traumatic injury, of relieving pain, and of preserving and improving human health, using molecular tools and molecular knowledge of the human body; (3) the employment of molecular machine systems to address medical problems, using molecular knowledge to maintain and improve human health at the molecular scale." Nanomedicine not only has the potential to change medical science dramatically but to open a new field of human enhancements that is poised to add a profound and complex set of ethical questions for health care professionals. For instance, there is a fine line between medical and non-medical uses of nanotechnology for diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive purposes (e.g. non-medical implants in soldiers). The question of whether nanotechnology should be used to make intentional changes in or to the body when the change is not medically necessary is just one hot topic in a long list of concerns. The good news is that these questions are being asked, but there is still much work to be done, but despite the enormous promise of nanomedicine, and the considerable funding going into the field, the research into the ethical, legal and social implications of nanomedicine is comparatively minute. As Peter Singer wrote in his 2003 tutorial Mind the gap: science and ethics in Nanotechnology: 'The science leaps ahead, the ethics lags behind.' As with nanotechnology in general, there is danger of derailing nanomedicine if the study of ethical, legal and social implications does not catch up with scientific developments.
1,300 to 1,400 grams and several thousand kilometers of about 100 billion interconnected nerve cells control every movement, thought, sensation, and emotion that comprise the human experience. Within the brain and spinal cord there are ten thousand distinct varieties of neurons, trillions of supportive cells, a few more trillion synaptic connections, a hundred known chemical regulating agents, kilometers of minuscule blood vessels, and untold mysteries of how - almost flawlessly - all these components work together. This is the amazing brain. Given the incredible complexity of the brain, it doesn't come as a big surprise that a lot of things can go wrong. The A-Z of brain disorders is a very long list. Several of these disorders (such as Parkinson and Alzheimer disease, but also schizophrenia, epilepsy, and bipolar disorder), not to mention tumors, are so severe that they require treatment of the brain. But even when there are promising pharmaceutical compounds for their treatment, more than 98% of these potential agents do not reach the drug development stage. The reason is the blood-brain barrier (BBB), a tight seal of endothelial cells lines the blood vessels in the brain and acts as a barrier to protect its cells. BBB strictly limits transport into the brain through both physical (tight junctions) and metabolic (enzymes) barriers and keeps most substances, such as chemicals and large biomolecules, out of the brain. The combined use of peptides and nanotechnology offers tremendous hope in the treatment of brain disorders by offering a way for drugs (the therapeutic kind) across the BBB.