Transparent Optogenetic Brain Implants: Amazing Use for Graphene!

1-Brain Transparentgraphene1-640x353Transparency is the key to many technologies. Thin conductive films, like those made from ITO (indium tin oxide) for example, can carry currents or create electric fields critical for displays or solar panels without blocking all the light.

The most powerful brain implants being built today have exactly this same requirement. Namely, they need to record fast electric signals with conductive arrays while permitting light to pass out through them for high-resolution imaging — and just to take it up a notch — let light pass in to permit optogenetic control directly under the implant for the icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, ITO is generally too stiff and too brittle for brain implants. Even if it could be made flexible, the high temperatures required to process it are incompatible with many of the materials (like parylene) that are used in the implants. Furthermore the transparency bandwidth of ITO is insufficient to fully exploit the wide spectrum of new UV and IR capable optogenetic proteins that have researchers fairly excited. The solution, now emerging from multiple labs throughout the universe is to build flexible, transparent electrode arrays from graphene. Two studies in the latest issue of Nature Communications, one from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the other from Penn, describe how to build these devices.

1-Brain Transparentgraphene1-640x353

The University of Wisconsin researchers are either a little bit smarter or just a little bit richer, because they published their work open access. It’s a no-brainer then that we will focus on their methods first, and also in more detail. To make the arrays, these guys first deposited the parylene (polymer) substrate on a silicon wafer, metalized it with gold, and then patterned it with an electron beam to create small contact pads. The magic was to then apply four stacked single-atom-thick graphene layers using a wet transfer technique. These layers were then protected with a silicon dioxide layer, another parylene layer, and finally molded into brain signal recording goodness with reactive ion etching.

PennTransparentelectrodeThe researchers went with four graphene layers because that provided optimal mechanical integrity and conductivity while maintaining sufficient transparency. They tested the device in opto-enhanced mice whose neurons expressed proteins that react to blue light. When they hit the neurons with a laser fired in through the implant, the protein channels opened and fired the cell beneath. The masterstroke that remained was then to successfully record the electrical signals from this firing, sit back, and wait for the Nobel prize office to call.

Read: MIT successfully implants false memories with optogenetics, may explain why we remember things that didn’t happen

The Penn State group used a similar 16-spot electrode array (pictured above right), and proceeded — we presume — in much the same fashion. Their angle was to perform high-resolution optical imaging, in particular calcium imaging, right out through the transparent electrode arrays which simultaneously recorded in high-temporal-resolution signals. They did this in slices of the hippocampus where they could bring to bear the complex and multifarious hardware needed to perform confocal and two-photon microscopy.

These latter techniques provide a boost in spatial resolution by zeroing in over narrow planes inside the specimen, and limiting the background by the requirement of two photons to generate an optical signal. We should mention that there are voltage sensitive dyes available, in addition to standard calcium dyes, which can almost record the fastest single spikes, but electrical recording still reigns supreme for speed.

What a mouse looks like with an optogenetics system plugged in

One concern of both groups in making these kinds of simultaneous electro-optic measurements was the generation of light-induced artifacts in the electrical recordings. This potential complication, called the Becqueral photovoltaic effect, has been known to exist since it was first demonstrated back in 1839.

When light hits a conventional metal electrode, a photoelectrochemical (or more simply, a photovoltaic) effect occurs. If present in these recordings, the different signals could be highly disambiguatable. The Penn researchers reported that they saw no significant artifact, while the Wisconsin researchers saw some small effects with their device. In particular, when compared with platinum electrodes put into the opposite side cortical hemisphere, the Wisconsin researchers found that the artifact from graphene was similar to that obtained from platinum electrodes.

At this point both groups are busy characterizing the performance of their new devices in exacting detail. If workable as more permanent brain implants they may offer a nice compliment to other new approaches we have recently seen — flexible materials like silk for example. Where silk may offer biodegradability and reversibility, graphene may offer biocompatible permanence and reliability. The significant hype regarding optogenetics, well-founded in our opinion, seems to have died down for the moment. New advances like those just described may help refocus general attention on the huge potential benefit optogenetics holds for humans.

Now read: The wonderful world of wonder materials (such as graphene)

Targeted Nanoparticles Combine Imaging Attack: Cancer + Other Conditions

targetednanoNanosystems that are ‘theranostic’—they combine both therapeutic and diagnostic functions—present an exciting new opportunity for delivering drugs to specific cells and identifying sites of disease.

Bin Liu of the A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, and colleagues at the National University of Singapore, have created nanoparticles with two distinct anticancer functions and an imaging function, all stimulated on demand by a single light source. The nanoparticles also include the cell-targeting property essential for treating and imaging in the correct locations.

The system is built around a polyethylene-glycol-based polymer that carries a small peptide component that allows it to bind preferentially to specific cell types. The polymer itself serves as a photosensitizer that can be stimulated by light to release (ROS). It also carries the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin in a prodrug form.



Surface peptides (purple arrows) allow fluorescent nanoparticles to bind to a protein (green) on the target cells and be taken up into the cells. Light exposure prompts the nanoparticles to generate reactive oxygen species (ROS), kills the cells, and also liberates the drug doxorubicin (orange), which can then enter the cell nucleus. Credit: WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

The natural fluorescence of the polymer assists with diagnosis and monitoring of as it shows where have accumulated. The ROS generated by light stimulation have a direct ‘photodynamic’ therapeutic activity, which destroys the targeted cells. The ROS additionally break the link between the polymer and the doxorubicin. Thus, can be subjected to a two-pronged attack from the ROS therapy and the chemotherapy drug that is released within them (see image).

“This is the first nanoplatform that can offer on-demand and imaging-guided and chemotherapy with triggered drug release through one light switch,” explains Liu, emphasizing the significance of the system.

The researchers demonstrated the power of their platform by applying it to a mixture of cultured cancer cells, some of which overexpressed a surface protein that could bind to the targeting peptide on the nanoparticles. Fluorescence imaging indicated that the nanoparticles were taken up by the target cells and that ROS and doxorubicin were released within these cells—all at significantly higher levels than in used as controls. The doxorubicin that was released in the cell cytoplasm readily entered the nucleus—its site of activity. Crucially, the combined therapy had a greater cytotoxic effect than any one therapy alone.

“The white light used in this work does not penetrate tissue sufficiently for in vivo applications,” Liu explains, “but we are now attempting to use near-infrared laser light to improve the tissue penetration and move toward on-demand cancer therapy.” She also suggests that with a few modifications, the system may be suitable for the diagnosis and treatment of other pathological processes including inflammation and HIV infection.

Explore further: Introducing the multi-tasking nanoparticle


Magnetic nanoemulsion measures blood glucose

glucose pic1A new type of glucose sensor that works using a magnetically polarizable nanoemulsion could help change the way blood sugar is measured. The new device does not rely on glucose oxidase enzymes, unlike conventional glucometers, but instead simply changes colour when it comes into contact with glucose.

A team of researchers, led by John Philip at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research in India, made the new sensor using a magnetically polarizable oil-in-water nanoemulsion of droplets that have a radius of around 100 nm. They made the emulsion by mixing together ferrimagnetic nanoparticles of iron oxide (around 10 nm across) with oil, a surfactant and water.

When the solution is exposed to glucose and a magnetic field applied, its colour simply changes.

“We stumbled on this effect quite by accident while working with magnetically polarizable nanoemulsions for fundamental physics studies,” explains Philip. “We then measured the colour (or diffracted light wavelength) of the nanoemulsion using a spectrograph and noticed that the shift (or change) in the diffracted wavelength (Δλmax) was quite high and that it varied linearly with glucose concentration.”

To our surprise, the Δλmax value at 30 mM glucose concentrations was as high as around 69 nm in the system under study, but this shift could be even larger with more suitably tailored emulsions, says Philip. “Since the Δλmax varies linearly with glucose concentration, we realized that the emulsion itself could be used as a biosensor,” he tells

The new device could help change the way diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels. Most existing glucometers are based on glucose oxidase enzyme platforms coupled to electromechanical systems in which the device response depends on enzyme activity or glucose mass transport. These techniques take a relatively long time to produce results and require quite complicated apparatus.

Label free and fast

“The novelty of our technique is that it is label (or enzyme) free and fast (it works within just milliseconds rather than minutes),” says Philip. “It also allows us to detect glucose concentrations visually without any electronic equipment.”

The device is also portable. “For qualitative glucose testing, you simply need to look at the colours in the nanoemulsion upon mixing with a fraction of blood or urine under a magnetic field that you might generate with a tiny magnet or solenoid. For quantitative sensing, all you would need is about 200 microlitres of nanoemulsion and a pocket sized fibre-optic spectrograph for testing your samples.”

How it works

So how does the sensor actually work? At a constant applied magnetic field, the nanoemulsion droplets form 1D chain-like structures that diffract light in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum, explains Philip. “The diffracted wavelength depends on the distance between the droplets. When glucose concentrations in a sample reach the 1–30 mM range, the diffracted wavelength shifts and since it varies linearly with glucose concentration, we can accurately determine this concentration using a calibration curve.”

Without an external magnetic field, the nanoemulsion droplets move about randomly (thanks to ordinary Brownian motion) but an applied magnetic field induces a dipole moment in each droplet, orienting it along the field direction. “Linear chain-like structures are formed along the field direction when the repulsive forces between the droplets exactly balance the attractive forces between them,” says Philip. “For perfectly aligned droplets spaced a distance d apart, the so-called first order Bragg condition is 2d = λmax/n, where λmax is the Bragg peak wavelength and n is the refractive index of water.”

As the droplets and the spaces between the droplets are about the same size as the wavelength of visible light, we see a Bragg peak in the visible wavelength range – which manifests itself as a colour change in these fluids that we can actually see with naked eye.”

The researchers are now busy trying to improve the sensitivity of their device. “We also need to work with companies that are interested in developing the sensor into a marketable product,” adds team member Vellaichamy Mahendran.

The current work is published in Applied Physics Letters.

Article by Belle Dumé

Genesis Nanotech ‘News and Updates’ – September 9, 2014

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Genesis Nanotech ‘News and Updates’ – September 9, 2014

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The World Of Tomorrow: Nanotechnology: Interview with PhD and Attorney D.M. Vernon

Bricks and Mortar chemistsdemoThe Editor interviews Deborah M. VernonPhD, Partner in McCarter & English, LLP’s Boston office.




Why It Matters –

” … I would say the two most interesting areas in the last year or two have been in 3-D printing and nanotechnology. 3-D printing is an additive technology in which one is able to make a three-dimensional product, such as a screw, by adding material rather than using a traditional reduction process, like a CNC (milling) process or a grinding-away process.

The other interesting area has been nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the science of materials and structures that have a dimension in the nanometer range (1-1,000 nm) – that is, on the atomic or molecular scale. A fascinating aspect of nanomaterials is that they can have vastly different material properties (e.g., chemical, electrical, mechanical properties) than their larger-scale counterparts. As a result, these materials can be used in applications where their larger-scale counterparts have traditionally not been utilized.”


Editor: Deborah, please tell us about the specific practice areas of intellectual property in which you participate.



Vernon: My practice has been directed to helping clients assess, build, maintain and enforce their intellectual property, especially in the technology areas of material science, analytical chemistry and mechanical engineering. Prior to entering the practice of law, I studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate and I obtained a PhD in material science engineering, where I focused on creating composite materials with improved mechanical properties.

Editor: Please describe some of the new areas of biological and chemical research into which your practice takes you, such as nanotechnology, three-dimensional printing technology, and other areas.

Vernon: I would say the two most interesting areas in the last year or two have been in 3-D printing and nanotechnology. 3-D printing is an additive technology in which one is able to make a three-dimensional product, such as a screw, by adding material rather than using a traditional reduction process, like a CNC (milling) process or a grinding-away process. The other interesting area has been nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the science of materials and structures that have a dimension in the nanometer range (1-1,000 nm) – that is, on the atomic or molecular scale.

A fascinating aspect of nanomaterials is that they can have vastly different material properties (e.g., chemical, electrical, mechanical properties) than their larger-scale counterparts. As a result, these materials can be used in applications where their larger-scale counterparts have traditionally not been utilized.

Organ on a chip organx250

I was fortunate to work in the nanotech field in graduate school. During this time, I investigated and developed methods for forming ceramic composites, which maintain a nanoscale grain size even after sintering. Sintering is the process used to form fully dense ceramic materials. The problem with sintering is that it adds energy to a system, resulting in grain growth of the ceramic materials. In order to maintain the advantageous properties of the nanosized grains, I worked on methods that pinned the ceramic grain boundaries to reduce growth during sintering.

The methods I developed not only involved handling of nanosized ceramic particles, but also the deposition of nanofilms into a porous ceramic material to create nanocomposites. I have been able to apply this experience in my IP practice to assist clients in obtaining and assessing IP in the areas of nanolaminates and coatings, nanosized particles and nanostructures, such as carbon nanotubes, nano fluidic devices, which are very small devices which transport fluids, and 3D structures formed from nanomaterials, such as woven nanofibers.

Editor: I understand that some of the components of the new Boeing 787 are examples of nanotechnology.

Vernon: The design objective behind the 787 is that lighter, better-performing materials will reduce the weight of the aircraft, resulting in longer possible flight times and decreased operating costs. Boeing reports that approximately 50 percent of the materials in the 787 are composite materials, and that nanotechnology will play an important role in achieving and exceeding the design objective. (See,

While it is believed that nanocomposite materials are used in the fuselage of the 787, Boeing is investigating applying nanotechnology to reduce costs and increase performance not only in fuselage and aircraft structures, but also within energy, sensor and system controls of the aircraft.

Editor: What products have incorporated nanotechnology? What products are anticipated to incorporate its processes in the future?

Vernon: The products that people are the most familiar with are cosmetic products, such as hair products for thinning hair that deliver nutrients deep into the scalp, and sunscreen, which includes nanosized titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to eliminate the white, pasty look of sunscreens. Sports products, such as fishing rods and tennis rackets, have incorporated a composite of carbon fiber and silica nanoparticles to add strength. Nano products are used in paints and coatings to prevent algae and corrosion on the hulls of boats and to help reduce mold and kill bacteria. We’re seeing nanotechnology used in filters to separate chemicals and in water filtration.

The textile industry has also started to use nano coatings to repel water and make fabrics flame resistant. The medical imaging industry is starting to use nanoparticles to tag certain areas of the body, allowing for enhanced MRI imaging. Developing areas include drug delivery, disease detection and therapeutics for oncology. Obviously, those are definitely in the future, but it is the direction of scientific thinking.

Editor: What liabilities can product manufacturers incur who are incorporating nanotechnology into their products? What kinds of health and safety risks are incurred in their manufacture or consumption?Nano Body II 43a262816377a448922f9811e069be13

Vernon: There are three different areas that we should think about: the manufacturing process, consumer use and environmental issues. In manufacturing there are potential safety issues with respect to the incorporation or delivery of nanomaterials. For example, inhalation of nanoparticles can cause serious respiratory issues, and contact of some nanoparticles with the skin or eyes may result in irritation. In terms of consumer use, nanomaterials may have different material properties from their larger counterparts.

As a result, we are not quite sure how these materials will affect the human body insofar as they might have a higher toxicity level than in their larger counterparts. With respect to an environmental impact, waste or recycled products may lead to the release of nanoparticles into bodies of water or impact wildlife. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has established the Nanotechnology Research Center to develop a strategic direction with respect to occupational safety and nanotechnology. Guidance and publications can be found at

Editor: The European Union requires the labeling of foods containing nanomaterials. What has been the position of the Food & Drug Administration and the EPA in the United States about food labeling?

Vernon: So far the FDA has taken the position that just because nanomaterials are smaller, they are not materially different from their larger counterparts, and therefore there have been no labeling requirements on food products. The FDA believes that their current standards for safety assessment are robust and flexible enough to handle a variety of different materials. That being said, the FDA has issued some guidelines for the food and cosmetic industries, but there has not been any requirement for food labeling as of now. The EPA has a nanotechnology division, which is also studying nanomaterials and their impact, but I haven’t seen anything that specifically requires a special registration process for nanomaterials.

Editor: What new regulations regarding nanotech products are expected? Should governmental regulations be adopted to prevent nanoparticles in foods and cosmetics from causing toxicity?

Vernon: The FDA has not telegraphed that any new regulations will be put into place. The agency is currently in the data collection stage to make sure that these materials are being safely delivered to people using current FDA standards – that materials are safe for human consumption or contact with humans. We won’t really understand whether or not regulations will be coming into place until we see data coming out that indicates that there are issues that are directly associated with nanomaterials. Rather than expecting regulations, I would suggest that we examine the data regarding nano products to optimize safe handling and use procedures.

Editor: Have there ever been any cases involving toxicity resulting from nano products?

Vernon: There are current investigations about the toxicity of carbon nano tubes, but the research is in its infancy. There is no evidence to show any potential harm from this technology. Unlike asbestos or silica exposure, the science is not there yet to demonstrate any toxicity link. The general understanding is that it may take decades for any potential harm to manifest. I believe my colleague, Patrick J. Comerford, head of McCarter’s product liability team in Boston, summarizes the situation well by noting that “if any supportable science was available, plaintiff’s bar would have already made this a high-profile target.”

Editor: While some biotech cases have failed the test of patentability before the courts, such as the case of Mayo v. Prometheus, what standard has been set forth for a biotech process to pass the test for patentability?

Vernon: There is no specified bright-line test for determining if a biotech process is patentable. But what the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has done is to issue some new examination guidelines with respect to the Mayo decision that help examiners figure out whether a biotech process is patent eligible. Specifically, the guidelines look to see if the biotech process (i.e., a process incorporating a law of nature) also includes at least one additional element or step. That additional element needs to be significant and not just a mental or correlation step. If a biotech process patent claim includes this significant additional step, there still needs to be a determination if the process is novel and non-obvious over the prior art. So while this might not be a bright-line test to help us figure out whether a biotech process is patentable, it at least gives us some direction about what the examiners are looking for in the patent claims.

Editor: What effect do you think the new America Invents Act will have in encouraging biotech companies to file early in the first stages of product development? Might that not run the risk that the courts could deny patentability as in the Ariad case where functional results of a process were described rather than the specific invention?

Vernon: The AIA goes into effect next month. What companies, especially biotech companies, need to do is file early. Companies need to submit applications supported by their research to include both a written description and enablement of the invention. Companies will need to be more focused on making sure that they are not only inventing in a timely manner but are also involving their patent counsel in planned and well-thought-out experiments to make sure that the supporting information is available in a timely fashion for patenting.

Editor: Have there been any recent cases relating to biotechnology or nanotechnology that our readers should be informed about?

Vernon: The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in April in the Myriad case. This case involves the BRCA gene, the breast cancer gene – and the issue is whether isolating a portion of a gene is patentable. While I am not a biotechnologist, I think this case will also impact nanotechnology as a whole. Applying for a patent on a portion of a gene is not too far distant from applying for a patent on a nanoparticle of a material that already exists but which has different properties from the original, larger-counterpart material. Would this nanosize material be patentable? This will be an important case to see what guidance the Supreme Court delivers this coming term.

Editor: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Vernon: I think the next couple of years for nanotech will be very interesting. As I mentioned, I did my PhD thesis in the nanotechnology area a few years ago. My studies, like those of many other students, were funded in part with government grants. There is a great deal of government money being poured into nanotechnology. In the next ten years we will start seeing more and more of this research being commercialized and adopted into our lives. To keep current of developments, readers can visit

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Peptoid Nanosheets at the Oil/Water Interface

Peptides Ron-Zuckerman-nanosheets-300x156Berkeley Lab Reports New Route to Novel Family of Biomimetic Materials



From the people who brought us peptoid nanosheets that form at the interface between air and water, now come peptoid nanosheets that form at the interface between oil and water. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed peptoid nanosheets – two-dimensional biomimetic materials with customizable properties – that self-assemble at an oil-water interface. This new development opens the door to designing peptoid nanosheets of increasing structural complexity and chemical functionality for a broad range of applications, including improved chemical sensors and separators, and safer, more effective drug delivery vehicles.

“Supramolecular assembly at an oil-water interface is an effective way to produce 2D nanomaterials from peptoids because that interface helps pre-organize the peptoid chains to facilitate their self-interaction,” says Ron Zuckermann, a senior scientist at the Molecular Foundry, a DOE nanoscience center hosted at Berkeley Lab. “This increased understanding of the peptoid assembly mechanism should enable us to scale-up to produce large quantities, or scale- down to screen many different nanosheets for novel functions.”


Ron Zuckerman and Geraldine Richmond led the development of peptoid nanosheets that form at the interface between oil and water, opening the door to increased structural complexity and chemical functionality for a broad range of applications.

Zuckermann, who directs the Molecular Foundry’s Biological Nanostructures Facility, and Geraldine Richmond of the University of Oregon are the corresponding authors of a paper reporting these results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper is titled “Assembly and molecular order of two-dimensional peptoid nanosheets at the oil-water interface.” Co-authors are Ellen Robertson, Gloria Olivier, Menglu Qian and Caroline Proulx.

Peptoids are synthetic versions of proteins. Like their natural counterparts, peptoids fold and twist into distinct conformations that enable them to carry out a wide variety of specific functions. In 2010, Zuckermann and his group at the Molecular Foundry discovered a technique to synthesize peptoids into sheets that were just a few nanometers thick but up to 100 micrometers in length. These were among the largest and thinnest free-floating organic crystals ever made, with an area-to-thickness equivalent of a plastic sheet covering a football field. Just as the properties of peptoids can be chemically customized through robotic synthesis, the properties of peptoid nanosheets can also be engineered for specific functions.

“Peptoid nanosheet properties can be tailored with great precision,” Zuckermann says, “and since peptoids are less vulnerable to chemical or metabolic breakdown than proteins, they are a highly promising platform for self-assembling bio-inspired nanomaterials.”

In this latest effort, Zuckermann, Richmond and their co-authors used vibrational sum frequency spectroscopy to probe the molecular interactions between the peptoids as they assembled at the oil-water interface. These measurements revealed that peptoid polymers adsorbed to the interface are highly ordered, and that this order is greatly influenced by interactions between neighboring molecules.

“We can literally see the polymer chains become more organized the closer they get to one another,” Zuckermann says.

Peptoid polymers adsorbed to the oil-water interface are highly ordered thanks to interactions between neighboring molecules.

The substitution of oil in place of air creates a raft of new opportunities for the engineering and production of peptoid nanosheets. For example, the oil phase could contain chemical reagents, serve to minimize evaporation of the aqueous phase, or enable microfluidic production.

“The production of peptoid nanosheets in microfluidic devices means that we should soon be able to make combinatorial libraries of different functionalized nanosheets and screen them on a very small scale,” Zuckermann says. “This would be advantageous in the search for peptoid nanosheets with the molecular recognition and catalytic functions of proteins.”

Zuckermann and his group at the Molecular Foundry are now investigating the addition of chemical reagents or cargo to the oil phase, and exploring their interactions with the peptoid monolayers that form during the nanosheet assembly process.

“In the future we may be able to produce nanosheets with drugs, dyes, nanoparticles or other solutes trapped in the interior,” he says. “These new nanosheets could have a host of interesting biomedical, mechanical and optical properties.”

This work was primarily funded by the DOE Office of Science and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Part of the research was performed at the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source, which are DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

Additional Information

For more about the research of Ronald Zuckermann go here

For more about the research of Geraldine Richmond go here

For more about the Molecular Foundry go here

#  #  #

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.  For more, visit

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U of Alberta scientist puts a finger on cancer cell ‘tentacles’; New study looks at how cancer spreads through the body

vnDpjc0OLw.JPGUniversity of Alberta researcher Dr. John Lewis peers into a microscope that was purpose-built to study how cancer cells form “tentacles” allowing them to spread through the body. His team’s findings were published in the most recent issue of the journal, Cell Reports. Photograph by: Supplied , University of Alberta

EDMONTON – A study led by a University of Alberta research team has pinpointed how cancer cells form “tentacles” to spread from one part of the body to another, a finding that could open up new possibilities for treatment.

The team spent three years observing how micron-sized cancer cells develop tentacles, called invadopodia, that allow them to move from the bloodstream into another organ. Scientists had never before observed the phenomenon in a live model.

“At an airplane terminal, you have all of your paperwork in place and there are guards to check it and make sure you’re secure. The body is the same way,” said Dr. John Lewis, associate professor in the university’s department of oncology.

“The immune system checks cells as they escape and filters them … This process of escape from the bloodstream is an important checkpoint where most of the cancer cells are destroyed. But if they’re able to produce these invadopodia — the right paperwork — they’re able to escape.”

Lewis noted the deadliest aspect of cancer is often its spread to other organs in the body. Ninety per cent of patients who die of cancer have metastasis, or the spread of cancer.

“No man will die of prostate cancer if it stays in his prostate. It becomes dangerous when it spreads … The prostate is not life-threatening if you lose it,” said Lewis, who holds the Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research.

Nano Body II 43a262816377a448922f9811e069be13

That’s why understanding how cancer spreads is so important. The team’s research found doctors could use drugs or genetic means to stop the development of invadopodia.

The drug used by the team is already in clinical cancer trials, which Lewis called “encouraging.” He also noted there is evidence showing that doing a biopsy or surgery on a cancer tumour can sometimes cause cancer to spread, which would make an invadopodia inhibitor particularly important in those cases. The development of an inhibitor that directly attacks invadopodia will likely take five to 10 years, he said.

Lewis and his team used a $500,000 microscope and the protein of a deepsea jelly fish to do their work. The protein glows fluorescent green and clearly shows up in images as the cancer cell against a backdrop of red blood cells. The microscope was purpose-built for this study and is one of only two such microscopes in the world.

The study and the microscope were partially funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, which helped bring Lewis from Western University in Ontario to Alberta.

“I don’t have enough to say about John and his team; they’re experts in the field,” said Raja Mita, the foundation’s director of program investments. “He has credibility on the research side and also on taking scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside.”

The team’s work was published in the most recent issue of the journal Cell Reports. Some of the study work was done by scientists at the Lawson Health Research Institute in Ontario.

Small and Mighty

3D Printing dots-2Scientists from research institutions around the world are beginning to master the science of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology has the potential to radically improve our everyday lives – whether by revolutionising the way we receive life-saving medicines, or by dramatically increasing the speed at which a tumour can be treated.

The origins of nanotechnology, or nanoscience, date back to 1959 when US physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk to the American Physical Society entitled: ’There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’.

Though the term ’nanotechnology’ was not coined until a decade after Feynman’s talk, it was the driving force behind much of his work.

Now, more than half a century later, nanotechnology is widely considered the disruptive science that will forcibly eradicate previous, less effective technologies.

In terms of size, a single sheet of newspaper measures roughly 100,000 nanometres thick.

What scientists stress as equally important as its size, however, is the reactive nature of a nanomaterials’ surface.

Nanomaterials such as graphene possess outstanding mechanical, thermal and electrical properties, and boast a density half that of aluminium – making it useful in the construction of some sports equipment (see image).

“You can send electrical signals using graphene far faster than you can with other materials

Senior lecturer David Carey

Senior lecturer in electronic engineering at the University of Surrey David Carey says: “Graphene has mechanical properties that exceed Young’s Modulus which exceeds almost all known materials, making it extremely light.”

For Carey, at the university’s new graphene centre, which forms part of its wider Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), there is a strong interest in the characterisation of high-frequency materials.

“You can send electrical signals using graphene far faster than you can with other materials, and that is why graphene within high-speed electronic equipment is becoming increasingly sought after,” Carey says.

“A really good example of that is within antennas. If you make a mobile phone antenna smaller and smaller, the electrical losses get bigger and bigger. But if you use graphene, those losses do not happen.”

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the potential to use nanomaterials such as graphene within advanced drug delivery, as an aid to nanomedicine.

Carey says that patients often get extremely sick from chemotherapy drugs because they are powerful medicines that spread throughout the body, rather than being constrained to a more localised area.

“If you can coat your vessel, such as a carbon nanotube, so those drugs only go to a tumour, then the patient has to consume far less medicine and therefore they don’t have such bad side-effects,” Carey says.

“Through this method, patients [can] recover far better and far more quickly.”

For Johnathan Aylott, associate professor in analytical bioscience at the Nottingham Nanotechnology & Nanoscience Centre (NNNC), however, nanomedicine technologies can sometimes fail as they cannot effectively manipulate the intelligent defence mechanisms inherent within our cellular structures.

“If you have a nanoparticle entering a cell, the cell works well to process it and get it contained and out the other side, which is why people talk about [how effective] nanotechnology can be in the delivery of drugs,” Aylott says.

“There are very few good examples of this technology currently on the market, however.”

To combat this, Aylott says researchers are engineering nanoparticles that effectively disguise themselves.

“With stealth nanoparticles, the idea is to trick the body into not realising what this ’thing’ is so it can deliver the drug effectively,” Aylott says.

Though Aylott admits there is huge potential for the use of stealth nanoparticles, knowing how these particles are processed and trafficked in the body unfortunately remains a barrier.

Yet, in developing our understanding of the human body even further, scientists are attempting to reimagine relatively modern processes using advances in nanoscience.

Professor Nicholas Long of Imperial College London’s (ICL) department of chemistry says his research into self-assembling nanoparticles centres on radically increasing the sensitivity of the contrast agents used in imaging applications.

“As long as we can persuade enough people that we have a good idea, we get to push the boundaries of what’s out there

NNNC associate professor Johnathan Aylott

“MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is brilliant in terms of showing very clearly defined images, but you need to use a lot of contrast agent to give you enough signal, and some of the commonly used agents are very toxic,” Long says.

To counter this, Long, alongside researchers at ICL, has developed a protein-coated iron-oxide nanoparticle designed to aid tumour diagnosis.

ARK nctr

“Iron-oxide nanoparticles are attractive because they have some inherent magnetic behaviour. And, as far as we know, they are benign, as opposed to other contrast agents,” he says.

Long says when using iron-oxide nanoparticles, a more powerful signal and a clearer MRI image of the tumours his team attempted to scan was produced.

Looking ahead, the main objective of Long’s research is to adapt the technology for use in human clinical trials.

“That’s the big goal for us. We need to do further animal work before we can move to human trials, but assuming they work well, we can apply for further funding [and start testing in humans],” Long says.

In an ideal world, Long says this treatment could be available within 10 years, depending on the outcome of more rigorous testing.

Fortunately, our understanding and acceptance of nanotechnology is gaining pace, and in the last decade especially, investment in the nano-sciences has benefited from some major monetary boosts.

“As long as we can persuade enough people that we have a good idea, we get to push the boundaries of what’s out there,” says Aylott.

Though nanotechnology deals in the realms of the almost unfathomably small, and can often only make incremental progress, given the right circumstances, and continued support, its potential to radicalise our everyday lives certainly seems mighty.

Newly-Developed Nanobiosensor Quickly Diagnoses Cancer

Nano Sensor for Cancer 50006Iranian materials engineering researchers from Sharif University of Technology produced a biosensor for the early diagnosis of cancer.

The sensor has been made of nanostructured materials, and has high sensitivity and stability while it can be produced through a cost-effective method.


One of the most famous genes in cancer researches is TP53 tumor gene. The determination of its mutation is an important parameter in the detection of tumor respond to treatment. Aggressive growth of some types of cancers is caused by the mutation of this gene. Therefore, the detection and investigation of specific sequence of the gene can be very useful to observe the progress of cancer and treatment of the patient. It can be concluded that the production of a very sensitive biosensor and the development of quick DNA detection methods are vital for early diagnosis of cancer. Among the present methods, electrochemical biosensors provide the chance for simple, quick and sensitive detection of DNA sequence (hybridation phenomenon).

Nano Sensor for Cancer 50006

The aim of the research was to produce and study an ultra sensitive nanobiosensor for quick detection of DNA sequences related to the mutation of cancer genes, including TP53, for early diagnosis and treatment of cancers in humans. TP53 cancer gene has been introduced as one of the most famous genes in cancer researches.

Simple production method, low cost, quick response, high sensitivity and wide linear detection range are among the characteristics of the produced nanobiosensor. The sensor also has appropriate stability (14 days) and selectivity, and it has the ability to be reproduced.

A part of the research has been recently published in Alaytica Chimica Acta, vol. 836, issue 1, August 2014, pp. 34-44.

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