How Nanotechnology Can Help Heal Hearts

Nanotechnology is especially suited to medicine because nature operates at not even a micro, but a nano scale synapses, the extracellular spaces between neurons that exchange massive amounts of information per second are approximately only 20-40 nanometres (nm) wide. The typical largest coronary artery, which supplies oxygen-rich blood to the heart, barely measures an inch in diameter.

Nanotechnology works with this natural nanoscale to deliver better healthcare results with fewer risks and side effects in a shorter span of time. It uses finer instruments, minimally invasive procedures and more efficient drug delivery systems to unblock blood vessels and repair tissues. This aspect of nanotechnology is especially useful and can reduce the risks associated with many invasive procedures, including cardiac care protocols.

Angioplasty is a procedure to open narrowed or blocked coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. During an angioplasty, a balloon catheter is guided into the affected artery; the balloon may be ‘blown up’ a few times to widen the diameter of the artery. Often a coronary artery stent, a small, metal mesh tube that expands inside the artery, is placed during or immediately after angioplasty to help prevent the artery from closing up again. A drug-eluting stent, now the norm, has medicine embedded in it that helps prevent the artery from closing in the long-term.

So far, so good. But this is where we run into a hiccup.  One of the biggest problems with current drug-eluting stents is Paclitaxel, the very drug they carry. Clinical trials show toxicity associated with Paclitaxel and increased chances of thrombosis, a dangerous event linked with heart attacks and strokes. Cardiologists remain conflicted over the use of Paclitaxel. A possible solution to Paclitaxel could be an alternate, safer drug, which is small enough at the molecular level to be bioavailable and can also be introduced in the artery in a short span of 35-40 seconds. Keep the stent in the artery any longer than this razor-thin span and you risk complications. Sirolimous is one such drug, but the biggest problem with Sirolimous is that it is slow on the uptake.

It took years of research by a dedicated core team of doctors, surgeons, pharmacists and chemists to finally put together the puzzle. And when all the pieces locked in place, the answer was perfect in its simplicity – a nanotechnology-enabled polymer-free drug-eluting stent system, especially adapted to carry Sirolimous, a far safer and hypoallergenic drug than Paclitaxel.


How To Detect Cancer With a Urine Test

Researchers centered at Nagoya University (Japan) develop a nanowire device able to detect microscopic levels of urinary markers potentially implicated in cancerCells communicate with each other through a number of different mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms are well-known: in animals, for example, predatory threats can drive the release of norepinephrine, a hormone that travels through the bloodstream and triggers heart and muscle cells to initiate a “fight-or-flight” response. A far less familiar mode of cellular transport is the extracellular vesicle (EV). EVs can be thought of as small “chunks” of a cell that are able to pinch off and circulate throughout the body to deliver messenger cargo to other cells. These messengers have become increasingly recognized as crucial mediators of cell-to-cell communication.

In a new study reported in Science Advances, researchers centered at Nagoya University have developed a novel medical device that can efficiently capture these EVs, and potentially use them to screen for cancer.


EVs are potentially useful as clinical markers. The composition of the molecules contained in an EV may provide a diagnostic signature for certain diseases,” lead author Takao Yasui explains. “The ongoing challenge for physicians in any field is to find a non-invasive diagnostic tool that allows them to monitor their patients on a regular basis–for example, a simple urine test.”

Among the many molecules EVs have been found to harbor are microRNAs, which are short pieces of ribonucleic acid that play diverse roles in normal cellular biology. Critically, the presence of certain microRNAs in urine might serve as a red flag for serious conditions such as bladder and prostate cancer. While this important cargo could therefore theoretically aid physicians in cancer diagnoses, there are still many technological hurdles that need to be overcome. One such hurdle: finding a feasible method to capture EVs in sufficient quantities to analyze them in a routine clinical setting.

The content of EVs in urine is extremely low, at less than 0.01% of the total fluid volume. This is a major barrier to their diagnostic utility,” Yasui notes. “Our solution was to embed zinc oxide nanowires into a specialized polymer to create a material that we believed would be highly efficient at capturing these vesicles. Our findings suggest that the device is indeed quite efficient. We obtained a collection rate of over 99%, surpassing ultracentrifugation as well as other methods that are currently being used in the field.


Polymeric Materials Outperform Natural Antibodies

Experts from the Biotechnology Group led by Professor Sergey Piletsky at the University of Leicester (UK) in collaboration with the spin-off company MIP Diagnostics Ltd, have announced the development of polymeric materials with molecular recognition capabilities which hold the potential to outperform natural antibodies in various diagnostic applications.

chemical background

 In a newly released article ‘A comparison of the performance of molecularly imprinted polymer nanoparticles for small molecule targets and antibodies in the ELISA format’ the researchers successfully demonstrated that polymer nanoparticles produced by the molecular imprinting technique (MIP nanoparticles) can bind to the target molecule with the same or higher affinity and specificity than widely used commercially available antibodies and against challenging targets.

Additionally, their ease of manufacture, short lead time, high affinity and the lack of requirement for cold chain logistics make them an attractive alternative to traditional antibodies for use in immunoassays.

Professor Piletsky, from our Department of Chemistry, explained: “It is now well over twenty years since the first demonstration that molecularly imprinted polymers can be used as the recognition material in assays for clinically significant drugs“. 


Self-Healable Lithium Ion Battery For Electronic Textile

Electronics that can be embedded in clothing are a growing trend. However, power sources remain a problem. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, scientists have now introduced thin, flexible, lithium ion batteries with self-healing properties that can be safely worn on the body. Even after completely breaking apart, the battery can grow back together without significant impact on its electrochemical properties.

Existing lithium ion batteries for wearable electronics can be bent and rolled up without any problems, but can break when they are twisted too far or accidentally stepped on—which can happen often when being worn. This damage not only causes the battery to fail, it can also cause a safety problem: Flammable, toxic, or corrosive gases or liquids may leak out.

A team led by Yonggang Wang and Huisheng Peng from  Fudan University in Shanghai – China, has now developed a new family of lithium ion batteries that can overcome such accidents thanks to their amazing self-healing powers. In order for a complicated object like a battery to be made self-healing, all of its individual components must also be self-healing. The scientists from Fudan University  the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (South Korea), and the Samsung R&D Institute China, have now been able to accomplish this.

self-healing-batteryThe electrodes in these batteries consist of layers of parallel carbon nanotubes. Between the layers, the scientists embedded the necessary lithium compounds in nanoparticle. In contrast to conventional lithium ion batteries, the lithium compounds cannot leak out of the electrodes, either while in use or after a break. The thin layer electrodes are each fixed on a substrate of self-healing polymer. Between the electrodes is a novel, solvent-free electrolyte made from a cellulose-based gel with an aqueous lithium sulfate solution embedded in it. This gel electrolyte also serves as a separation layer between the electrodes.

After a break, it is only necessary to press the broken ends together for a few seconds for them to grow back together. Both the self-healing polymer and the carbon nanotubes “stick” back together perfectly. The parallel arrangement of the nanotubes allows them to come together much better than layers of disordered carbon nanotubes. The electrolyte also poses no problems. Whereas conventional electrolytes decompose immediately upon exposure to air, the new gel is stable. Free of organic solvents, it is neither flammable nor toxic, making it safe for this application.

The capacity and charging/discharging properties of a batteryarmband” placed around a doll’s elbow were maintained, even after repeated break/self-healing cycles.


Green Electronics

A team of University of Toronto chemists has created a battery that stores energy in a biologically-derived unit, paving the way for cheaper consumer electronics that are easier on the environment.

The battery is similar to many commercially-available high-energy lithium-ion batteries with one important difference. It uses flavin from vitamin B2 as the cathode: the part that stores the electricity that is released when connected to a device.


We’ve been looking to nature for a while to find complex molecules for use in a number of consumer electronics applications,” says Dwight Seferos, a professor in U of T’s department of chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Polymer Nanotechnology. “When you take something made by nature that is already complex, you end up spending less time making new material,” says Seferos.

The team created the material from vitamin B2 that originates in genetically-modified fungi using a semi-synthetic process to prepare the polymer by linking two flavin units to a long-chain molecule backbone. This allows for a green battery with high capacity and high voltage – something increasingly important as the ‘Internet of Things’ continues to link us together more and more through our battery-powered portable devices.

It’s a pretty safe, natural compound,” Seferos adds. “If you wanted to, you could actually eat the source material it comes from.” B2’s ability to be reduced and oxidized makes its well-suited for a lithium ion battery.


Nano-Robots Enter Living Cells

Researchers have developed the world’s tiniest engine – just a few billionths of a metre in size – which uses light to power itself. The nanoscale engine, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, could form the basis of future nano-machines that can navigate in water, sense the environment around them, or even enter living cells to fight disease. The prototype device is made of tiny charged particles of gold, bound together with temperature-responsive polymers in the form of a gel. When the ‘nano-engine’ is heated to a certain temperature with a laser, it stores large amounts of elastic energy in a fraction of a second, as the polymer coatings expel all the water from the gel and collapse. This has the effect of forcing the gold nanoparticles to bind together into tight clusters. But when the device is cooled, the polymers take on water and expand, and the gold nanoparticles are strongly and quickly pushed apart, like a spring.


It’s like an explosion,” said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, and the paper’s first author. “We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them.
We know that light can heat up water to power steam engines,” said study co-author Dr Ventsislav Valev, now based at the University of Bath. “But now we can use light to power a piston engine at the nanoscale.”

The results are reported in the journal PNAS.


Artificial Molecules Revolutionize 3D Printing

Scientists at ETH Zurich and IBM Research Zurich have developed a new technique that enables for the first time the manufacture of complexly structured tiny objects joining together microspheres. The objects have a size of just a few micrometres and are produced in a modular fashion, making it possible to program their design in such a way that each component exhibits different physical properties. After fabrication, it is also very simple to bring the micro-objects into solution. This makes the new technique substantially different from micro 3D printing technology. With most of today’s micro 3D printing technologies, objects can only be manufactured if they consist of a single material, have a uniform structure and are attached to a surface during production.

3D printing process ETHArtificial molecules. The individual components are marked with different fluorescent dyes (molecule size: 2-7 micrometres; compilation of microscopic images)

To prepare the micro-objects, the ETH and IBM researchers use tiny spheres made from a polymer or silica as their building blocks, each with a diameter of approximately one micrometre and different physical properties. The scientists are able to control the particles and arrange them in the geometry and sequence they like.

The structures that are formed occupy an interesting niche in the size scale: they are much larger than your typical chemical or biochemical molecules, but much smaller than typical objects in the macroscopic world. “Depending on the perspective, it’s possible to speak of giant molecules or micro-objects,” says Lucio Isa, Professor for Interfaces, Soft matter and Assembly at ETH Zurich. He headed the research project together with Heiko Wolf, a scientist at IBM Research. “So far, no scientist has succeeded in fully controlling the sequence of individual components when producing artificial molecules on the micro scale,” says Isa.


Transparent Wood Brightens Homes

When it comes to indoor lighting, nothing beats the sun’s rays streaming in through windows. Soon, that natural light could be shining through walls, too. Scientists from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden) have developed transparent wood that could be used in building materials and could help home and building owners save money on their artificial lighting costs. Their material, reported in ACS’ journal Biomacromolecules, also could find application in solar cell windows.

transparent wood

Homeowners often search for ways to brighten up their living space. They opt for light-colored paints, mirrors and lots of lamps and ceiling lights. But if the walls themselves were transparent, this would reduce the need for artificial lighting — and the associated energy costs. Recent work on making transparent paper from wood has led to the potential for making similar but stronger materials. Lars Berglund and colleagues from KTH the wanted to pursue this possibility.

The researchers removed lignin from samples of commercial balsa wood. Lignin is a structural polymer in plants that blocks 80 to 95 percent of light from passing through. But the resulting material was still not transparent due to light scattering within it. To allow light to pass through the wood more directly, the researchers incorporated acrylic, often known as Plexiglass. The researchers could see through the resulting material, which was twice as strong as Plexiglass. Although the wood isn’t as crystal clear as glass, its haziness provides a possible advantage for solar cells. Specifically, because the material still traps some light, it could be used to boost the efficiency of these cells, the scientists note.


Super Smart Band-Aids

This is what a band-aid in the future might look like. It’s a stretchable hydrogel that in many ways mimics
the properties of human tissue.

smart band-aid

Hydrogel is a polymer network infiltrated with water. Even though it is only 5 to 10 percent polymer, this network is extremely important“, says Xuanhe Zhao, Professor of Mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Important because the polymer makes up a microscopic scaffold that endows it with special properties uncommon to synthetic hydrogels. It is highly stretchable and can adhere easily to surfaces. Most importantly, it is specifically designed to be compatible with the human body – both inside and out. That compatibility could potentially give rise to a new class of biomedical devices.

We further embed electronic devices such as sensors, such as different drug delivery devices into this matrix to achieve what we call the smart applications“, comments Zhao.  Applications that could turn an ordinary band-aid into a tool to actively monitor and heal wounds autonomously. Zhao uses burns as an example… “Once the sensor senses an abnormal increase in temperature for example It will send out a command. Then the controlled drug delivery system can deliver a specific drug to that specific location“, he adds. The researchers are now fine tuning the properties and functionality of their hydrogels. They hope that soon healing everything from a scratch to an ulcer will be as simpleas putting on a band-aid.


Molecules Tell Bone To Repair Itself

Scientists at the University of Michigan have developed a polymer sphere that delivers a molecule to bone wounds that tells cells already at the injury site to repair the damage. Using the polymer sphere to introduce the microRNA molecule into cells elevates the job of existing cells to that of injury repair by instructing the cellshealing and bone-building mechanisms to switch on, said Peter Ma, professor of dentistry and lead researcher on the project. It’s similar to a new supervisor ordering an office cleaning crew to start constructing an addition to the building, he said.

Using existing cells to repair wounds reduces the need to introduce foreign cells — a very difficult therapy because cells have their own personalities, which can result in the host rejecting the foreign cells, or tumors. The microRNA is time-released, which allows for therapy that lasts for up to a month or longer, said Ma, who also has appointments in the College of Engineering.

nano-shells-deliver-molecules-that-tell-bone-to-repair-itselfThe polymer sphere delivers the microRNA into cells already at the wound site, which turns the cells into bone repairing machines

The new technology we have been working on opens doors for new therapies using DNA and RNA in regenerative medicine and boosts the possibility of dealing with other challenging human diseases,” Ma said. It’s typically very difficult for microRNA to breach the fortress of the cell wall, Ma added. The polymer sphere developed by Ma’s lab easily enters the cell and delivers the microRNA. The technology can help grow bone in people with conditions like oral implants, those undergoing bone surgery or joint repair, or people with tooth decay.

Bone repair is especially challenging in patients with healing problems, but Ma’s lab was able to heal bone wounds in osteoporotic mice, he said. Millions of patients worldwide suffer from bone loss and associated functional problems, but growing and regenerating high-quality bone for specific applications is still very difficult with current technology.

The findings have been published in the journal Nature Communications.


Nanotechnology To Help Fixing Extreme Poverty

Cranfield University (UK) is developing the Nano Membrane Toilet, designed for single-household use (equivalent to ten people). The toilet is designed to accept urine and faeces as a mixture. The toilet flush uses a unique rotating mechanism to transport the mixture into the toilet without demanding water whilst simultaneously blocking odour and the user’s view of the waste.

nano membrane toilet

Solids separation (faeces) is principally accomplished through sedimentation. Loosely bound water (mostly from urine) is separated using low glass transition temperature hollow-fibre membranes. The unique nanostructured membrane wall facilitates water transport in the vapour state rather than as a liquid state which yields high rejection of pathogens and some odorous volatile compounds. A novel nano-coated bead enables water vapour recovery through encouraging the formation of water droplets at the nanobead surface. Once the droplets form a critical size, the water drains into a collection vessel for reuse at the household level in washing or irrigation applications.

Following release of unbound water, the residual solids (around 20-25% solids) are transported by mechanical screw which drops them into into a coating chamber lined with a replaceable bag. Once inside the coating chamber, the solid matrix is periodically coated with a biodegradable nano-polymer. The nanopolymer coating serves to block odour and acts as a barrier to pathogen transport. The toilet will be powered using a modular hand crank or bicycle power generator supplied for household use that can also power other low voltage items (eg mobile phones).

The replaceable bag comprising the coated solids is periodically collected for transport to a locally sited small scale gasifier sized to accommodate around 40 toilets. Both toilet maintenance and solids collection will be undertaken with a trained operative responsible for the franchised area.


How To Build Stronger Airplanes, Space Shuttles

Thousands bound together are still thinner than a single strand of human hair, but with research from Binghamton University, boron nitride nanotubes may help build better fighter planes and space shuttles.

A team of scientists led by Changhong Ke, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Binghamton University‘s Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, and researcher Xiaoming Chen were the first to determine the interface strength between boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs) and epoxy and other polymers.



We think that this could be the first step in a process that changes the way we design and make materials that affect the future of travel on this planet and exploration of other worlds beyond our own,” said Ke. “Those materials may be way off still, but someone needed to take the first step, and we have.”


Metaphorically, think of the epoxy or other polymer materials with the BNNT nanotubes inside like a piece of reinforced concrete. That concrete gets much of its strength from the makeup of the steel rebar and cement; the dispersion of rebar within the cement; the alignment of rebar within the cement; and “stickiness” of the connection between the rebar and the surrounding cement. The scientists essentially measured the “stickiness” of a single nanotube ‘rebar’ — helped by molecular and electrostatic interactions — by removing it from polymer “cement.”