Category Archives: medicine

University of Alberta team may open door to flexible electronics with engineering breakthrough

There’s some exciting news from the University of Alberta. It emerges from a team that has reconsidered transistor architecture, from a Feb. 9, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

An engineering research team at the University of Alberta has invented a new transistor that could revolutionize thin-film electronic devices.

The team was exploring new uses for thin film transistors (TFT), which are most commonly found in low-power, low-frequency devices like the display screen you’re reading from now. Efforts by researchers and the consumer electronics industry to improve the performance of the transistors have been slowed by the challenges of developing new materials or slowly improving existing ones for use in traditional thin film transistor architecture, known technically as the metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor (MOSFET).

But the U of A electrical engineering team did a run-around on the problem. Instead of developing new materials, the researchers improved performance by designing a new transistor architecture that takes advantage of a bipolar action. In other words, instead of using one type of charge carrier, as most thin film transistors do, it uses electrons and the absence of electrons (referred to as “holes”) to contribute to electrical output. Their first breakthrough was forming an ‘inversion’ hole layer in a ‘wide-bandgap’ semiconductor, which has been a great challenge in the solid-state electronics field.

A Feb. 9, 2016 University of Alberta news release by Richard Cairney and Grecia Pacheco (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

Once this was achieved, “we were able to construct a unique combination of semiconductor and insulating layers that allowed us to inject “holes” at the MOS interface,” said Gem Shoute, a PhD student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who is lead author on the article. Adding holes at the interface increased the chances of an electron “tunneling” across a dielectric barrier. Through this phenomenon, a type of quantum tunnelling, “we were finally able to achieve a transistor that behaves like a bipolar transistor.”

“It’s actually the best performing [TFT] device of its kind–ever,” said materials engineering professor Ken Cadien, a co-author on the paper. “This kind of device is normally limited by the non-crystalline nature of the material that they are made of”

The dimension of the device itself can be scaled with ease in order to improve performance and keep up with the need of miniaturization, an advantage that modern TFTs lack. The transistor has power-handling capabilities at least 10 times greater than commercially produced thin film transistors.

Electrical engineering professor Doug Barlage, who is Shoute’s PhD supervisor and one of the paper’s lead authors, says his group was determined to try new approaches and break new ground. He says the team knew it could produce a high-power thin film transistor–it was just a matter of finding out how.

“Our goal was to make a thin film transistor with the highest power handling and switching speed possible. Not many people want to look into that, but the raw properties of the film indicated dramatic performance increase was within reach,” he said. “The high quality sub 30 nanometre (a human hair is 50,000 nanometres wide) layers of materials produced by Professor Cadien’s group enabled us to successfully try these difficult concepts”

In the end, the team took advantage of the very phenomena other researchers considered roadblocks.

“Usually tunnelling current is considered a bad thing in MOSFETs and it contributes to unnecessary loss of power, which manifests as heat,” explained Shoute. “What we’ve done is build a transistor that considers tunnelling current a benefit.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Sustained hole inversion layer in a wide-bandgap metal-oxide semiconductor with enhanced tunnel current by Gem Shoute, Amir Afshar, Triratna Muneshwar, Kenneth Cadien, & Douglas Barlage. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10632 doi:10.1038/ncomms10632 Published 04 February 2016

This is an open access paper.

Graphene and neurons in a UK-Italy-Spain collaboration

There’s been a lot of talk about using graphene-based implants in the brain due to the material’s flexibility along with its other properties. A step forward has been taking according to a Jan. 29, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Researchers have successfully demonstrated how it is possible to interface graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – with neurons, or nerve cells, while maintaining the integrity of these vital cells. The work may be used to build graphene-based electrodes that can safely be implanted in the brain, offering promise for the restoration of sensory functions for amputee or paralysed patients, or for individuals with motor disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease.

A Jan. 29, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Previously, other groups had shown that it is possible to use treated graphene to interact with neurons. However the signal to noise ratio from this interface was very low. By developing methods of working with untreated graphene, the researchers retained the material’s electrical conductivity, making it a significantly better electrode.

“For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Trieste in Italy. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signalling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.”

Our understanding of the brain has increased to such a degree that by interfacing directly between the brain and the outside world we can now harness and control some of its functions. For instance, by measuring the brain’s electrical impulses, sensory functions can be recovered. This can be used to control robotic arms for amputee patients or any number of basic processes for paralysed patients – from speech to movement of objects in the world around them. Alternatively, by interfering with these electrical impulses, motor disorders (such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s) can start to be controlled.

Scientists have made this possible by developing electrodes that can be placed deep within the brain. These electrodes connect directly to neurons and transmit their electrical signals away from the body, allowing their meaning to be decoded.

However, the interface between neurons and electrodes has often been problematic: not only do the electrodes need to be highly sensitive to electrical impulses, but they need to be stable in the body without altering the tissue they measure.

Too often the modern electrodes used for this interface (based on tungsten or silicon) suffer from partial or complete loss of signal over time. This is often caused by the formation of scar tissue from the electrode insertion, which prevents the electrode from moving with the natural movements of the brain due to its rigid nature.

Graphene has been shown to be a promising material to solve these problems, because of its excellent conductivity, flexibility, biocompatibility and stability within the body.

Based on experiments conducted in rat brain cell cultures, the researchers found that untreated graphene electrodes interfaced well with neurons. By studying the neurons with electron microscopy and immunofluorescence the researchers found that they remained healthy, transmitting normal electric impulses and, importantly, none of the adverse reactions which lead to the damaging scar tissue were seen.

According to the researchers, this is the first step towards using pristine graphene-based materials as an electrode for a neuro-interface. In future, the researchers will investigate how different forms of graphene, from multiple layers to monolayers, are able to affect neurons, and whether tuning the material properties of graphene might alter the synapses and neuronal excitability in new and unique ways. “Hopefully this will pave the way for better deep brain implants to both harness and control the brain, with higher sensitivity and fewer unwanted side effects,” said Ballerini.

“We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications,” said Professor Maurizio Prato from the University of Trieste. “In this scenario, the development and translation in neurology of graphene-based high-performance biodevices requires the exploration of the interactions between graphene nano- and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signalling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is only a first step in that direction.”

“These initial results show how we are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of graphene and related materials in bio-applications and medicine,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “The expertise developed at the Cambridge Graphene Centre allows us to produce large quantities of pristine material in solution, and this study proves the compatibility of our process with neuro-interfaces.”

The research was funded by the Graphene Flagship [emphasis mine],  a European initiative which promotes a collaborative approach to research with an aim of helping to translate graphene out of the academic laboratory, through local industry and into society.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Graphene-Based Interfaces Do Not Alter Target Nerve Cells by Alessandra Fabbro, Denis Scaini, Verónica León, Ester Vázquez, Giada Cellot, Giulia Privitera, Lucia Lombardi, Felice Torrisi, Flavia Tomarchio, Francesco Bonaccorso, Susanna Bosi, Andrea C. Ferrari, Laura Ballerini, and Maurizio Prato. ACS Nano, 2016, 10 (1), pp 615–623 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b05647 Publication Date (Web): December 23, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

There are a couple things I found a bit odd about this project. First, all of the funding is from the Graphene Flagship initiative. I was expecting to see at least some funding from the European Union’s other mega-sized science initiative, the Human Brain Project. Second, there was no mention of Spain nor were there any quotes from the Spanish researchers. For the record, the Spanish institutions represented were: University of Castilla-La Mancha, Carbon Nanobiotechnology Laboratory, and the Basque Foundation for Science.

Cellulose-based nanogenerators to power biomedical implants?

This cellulose nanogenerator research comes from India. A Jan. 27, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release makes the announcement,

Implantable electronics that can deliver drugs, monitor vital signs and perform other health-related roles are on the horizon. But finding a way to power them remains a challenge. Now scientists have built a flexible nanogenerator out of cellulose, an abundant natural material, that could potentially harvest energy from the body — its heartbeats, blood flow and other almost imperceptible but constant movements. …

Efforts to convert the energy of motion — from footsteps, ocean waves, wind and other movement sources — are well underway. Many of these developing technologies are designed with the goal of powering everyday gadgets and even buildings. As such, they don’t need to bend and are often made with stiff materials. But to power biomedical devices inside the body, a flexible generator could provide more versatility. So Md. Mehebub Alam and Dipankar Mandal at Jadavpur University in India set out to design one.

The researchers turned to cellulose, the most abundant biopolymer on earth, and mixed it in a simple process with a kind of silicone called polydimethylsiloxane — the stuff of breast implants — and carbon nanotubes. Repeated pressing on the resulting nanogenerator lit up about two dozen LEDs instantly. It also charged capacitors that powered a portable LCD, a calculator and a wrist watch. And because cellulose is non-toxic, the researchers say the device could potentially be implanted in the body and harvest its internal stretches, vibrations and other movements [also known as, harvesting biomechanical motion].

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Native Cellulose Microfiber-Based Hybrid Piezoelectric Generator for Mechanical Energy Harvesting Utility by
Md. Mehebub Alam and Dipankar Mandal. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (3), pp 1555–1558 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b08168 Publication Date (Web): January 11, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

I did take a peek at the paper to see if I could determine whether or not they had used wood-derived cellulose and whether cellulose nanocrystals had been used. Based on the references cited for the paper, I think the answer to both questions is yes.

My latest piece on harvesting biomechanical motion is a June 24, 2014 post where I highlight a research project in Korea and another one in the UK and give links to previous posts on the topic.

Constructing a liver

Chinese researchers have taken a step closer to constructing complex (lifelike) liver tissue according to a Jan. 27, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Engineered liver tissue could have a range of important uses, from transplants in patients suffering from the organ’s failure to pharmaceutical testing [this usage is sometimes known as liver-on-a-chip]. Now scientists report in ACS’ journal Analytical Chemistry the development of such a tissue, which closely mimics the liver’s complicated microstructure and function more effectively than existing models.

The liver serves a critical role in digesting food and detoxifying the body. But due to a variety of factors, including viral infections, alcoholism and drug reactions, the organ can develop chronic or acute problems. When it doesn’t work well, a person can suffer abdominal pain, swelling, nausea and other symptoms. Complete liver failure can be life-threatening and can require a transplant, a procedure that currently depends on human donors. To curtail this reliance and provide an improved model for predicting drugs’ side effects, scientists have been engineering liver tissue in the lab. But so far, they haven’t achieved the complex architecture of the real thing. Jinyi Wang and colleagues came up with a new approach.

Wang’s team built a microfluidics-based tissue that copies the liver’s complex lobules, the organ’s tiny structures that resemble wheels with spokes. They did this with human cells from a liver and an aorta, the body’s main artery. In the lab, the engineered tissue had a metabolic rate that was closer to real-life levels than other liver models, and it successfully simulated how a real liver would react to various drug combinations. The researchers conclude their approach could lead to the development of functional liver tissue for clinical applications and screening drugs for side effects and potentially harmful interactions.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

On-Chip Construction of Liver Lobule-like Microtissue and Its Application for Adverse Drug Reaction Assay by Chao Ma, Lei Zhao, En-Min Zhou, Juan Xu, Shaofei Shen, and Jinyi Wang. Northwest A&F University, China Anal. Chem., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.5b03869 Publication Date (Web): January 7, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

In a teleconference earlier this month (January 2016), I spoke to researchers at the University of Malaya, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), and Harvard University about a joint lung and nanomedicine research project where I asked researcher Joseph Brain (Harvard) about using lung-on-a-chip testing in place of in vivo (animal) testing and he indicated more confidence in the ‘precision cut lung slices’ technique. (You can find out more about the Malaysian project in my Jan. 12, 2016 posting but there’s only a brief mention of Brain’s preferred alternative animal testing technique.)

#BCTECH: being at the Summit (Jan. 18-19, 2016)

#BCTECH Summit 2016*, a joint event between the province of British Columbia (BC, Canada) and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC), a crown corporation formerly known as the Science Council of British Columbia, launched on Jan. 18, 2016. I have written a preview (Jan. 17, 2016 post) and a commentary on the new #BCTECH strategy (Jan. 19, 2016 posting) announced by British Columbia Premier, Christy Clark, on the opening day (Jan. 18, 2016) of the summit.

I was primarily interested in the trade show/research row/technology showcase aspect of the summit focusing (but not exclusively) on nanotechnology. Here’s what I found,

Nano at the Summit

  • Precision NanoSystems: fabricates equipment which allows researchers to create polymer nanoparticles for delivering medications.

One of the major problems with creating nanoparticles is ensuring a consistent size and rapid production. According to Shell Ip, a Precision NanoSystems field application scientist, their NanoAssemblr Platform has solved the consistency problem and a single microfluidic cartridge can produce 15 ml in two minutes. Cartridges can run in parallel for maximum efficiency when producing nanoparticles in greater quantity.

The NanoAssemblr Platform is in use in laboratories around the world (I think the number is 70) and you can find out more on the company’s About our technology webpage,

The NanoAssemblr™ Platform

The microfluidic approach to particle formulation is at the heart of the NanoAssemblr Platform. This well-controlled process mediates bottom-up self-assembly of nanoparticles with reproducible sizes and low polydispersity. Users can control size by process and composition, and adjust parameters such as mixing ratios, flow rate and lipid composition in order to fine-tune nanoparticle size, encapsulation efficiency and much more. The system technology enables manufacturing scale-up through microfluidic reactor parallelization similar to the arraying of transistors on an integrated chip. Superior design ensures that the platform is fast and easy to use with a software controlled manufacturing process. This usability allows for the simplified transfer of manufacturing protocols between sites, which accelerates development, reduces waste and ultimately saves money. Precision NanoSystems’ flagship product is the NanoAssemblr™ Benchtop Instrument, designed for rapid prototyping of novel nanoparticles. Preparation time on the system is streamlined to approximately one minute, with the ability to complete 30 formulations per day in the hands of any user.

The company is located on property known as the Endowment Lands or, more familiarly, the University of British Columbia (UBC).

A few comments before moving on, being able to standardize the production of medicine-bearing nanoparticles is a tremendous step forward which is going to help scientists dealing with other issues. Despite all the talk in the media about delivering nanoparticles with medication directly to diseased cells, there are transport issues: (1) getting the medicine to the right location/organ and (2) getting the medicine into the cell. My Jan. 12, 2016 posting featured a project with Malaysian scientists and a team at Harvard University who are tackling the transport and other nanomedicine) issues as they relate to the lung. As well, I have a Nov. 26, 2015 posting which explores a controversy about nanoparticles getting past the ‘cell walls’ into the nucleus of the cell.

The next ‘nano’ booths were,

  • 4D Labs located at Simon Fraser University (SFU) was initially hailed as a nanotechnology facility but these days they’re touting themselves as an ‘advanced materials’ facility. Same thing, different branding.

They advertise services including hands-on training for technology companies and academics. There is a nanoimaging facility and nanofabrication facility, amongst others.

I spoke with their operations manager, Nathaniel Sieb who mentioned a few of the local companies that use their facilities. (1) Nanotech Security (featured here most recently in a Dec. 29, 2015 post), an SFU spinoff company, does some of their anticounterfeiting research work at 4D Labs. (2) Switch Materials (a smart window company, electrochromic windows if memory serves) also uses the facilities. It is Neil Branda’s (4D Labs Executive Director) company and I have been waiting impatiently (my May 14, 2010 post was my first one about Switch) for either his or someone else’s electrochromic windows (they could eliminate or reduce the need for air conditioning during the hotter periods and reduce the need for heat in the colder periods) to come to market. Seib tells me, I’ll have to wait longer for Switch. (3) A graduate student was presenting his work at the booth, a handheld diagnostic device that can be attached to a smartphone to transmit data to the cloud. While the first application is for diabetics, there are many other possibilities. Unfortunately, glucose means you need to produce blood for the test when I suggested my preference for saliva the student explained some of the difficulties. Apparently, your saliva changes dynamically and frequently and something as simple as taking a sip of orange juice could result in a false reading. Our conversation (mine, Seib’s and the student’s) also drifted over into the difficulties of bringing products to market. Sadly, we were not able to solve that problem in our 10 minute conversation.

  • FPInnovations is a scientific research centre and network for the forestry sector. They had a display near their booth which was like walking into a peculiar forest (I was charmed). The contrast with the less imaginative approaches all around was striking.

FPInnovation helped to develop cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), then called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), and I was hoping to be updated about CNC and about the spinoff company Celluforce. The researcher I spoke to was from Sweden and his specialty was business development. He didn’t know much about CNC in Canada and when I commented on how active Sweden has been its pursuit of a CNC application, he noted Finland has been the most active. The researcher noted that making the new materials being derived from the forest, such as CNC, affordable and easily produced for use in applications that have yet to be developed are all necessities and challenges. He mentioned that cultural changes also need to take place. Canadians are accustomed to slicing away and discarding most of the tree instead of using as much of it as possible. We also need to move beyond the construction and pulp & paper sectors (my Feb. 15, 2012 posting featured nanocellulose research in Sweden where sludge was the base material).

Other interests at the Summit

I visited:

  • “The Wearable Lower Limb Anthropomorphic Exoskeleton (WLLAE) – a lightweight, battery-operated and ergonomic robotic system to help those with mobility issues improve their lives. The exoskeleton features joints and links that correspond to those of a human body and sync with motion. SFU has designed, manufactured and tested a proof-of-concept prototype and the current version can mimic all the motions of hip joints.” The researchers (Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park) pointed out that the ability to mimic all the motions of the hip is a big difference between their system and others which only allow the leg to move forward or back. They rushed the last couple of months to get this system ready for the Summit. In fact, they received their patent for the system the night before (Jan. 17, 2016) the Summit opened.

It’s the least imposing of the exoskeletons I’ve seen (there’s a description of one of the first successful exoskeletons in a May 20, 2014 posting; if you scroll down to the end you’ll see an update about the device’s unveiling at the 2014 World Cup [soccer/football] in Brazil).

Unfortunately, there aren’t any pictures of WLLAE yet and the proof-of-concept version may differ significantly from the final version. This system could be used to help people regain movement (paralysis/frail seniors) and I believe there’s a possibility it could be used to enhance human performance (soldiers/athletes). The researchers still have some significant hoops to jump before getting to the human clinical trial stage. They need to refine their apparatus, ensure that it can be safely operated, and further develop the interface between human and machine. I believe WLLAE is considered a neuroprosthetic device. While it’s not a fake leg or arm, it enables movement (prosthetic) and it operates on brain waves (neuro). It’s a very exciting area of research, consequently, there’s a lot of international competition.

  • Delightfully, after losing contact for a while, I reestablished it with the folks (Sean Lee, Head External Relations and Jim Hanlon, Chief Administrative Officer) at TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics). It’s a consortium of 19 Canadian research institutions (12 full members and seven associate members).

It’s a little disappointing that TRIUMF wasn’t featured in the opening for the Summit since the institution houses theoretical, experimental, and applied science work. It’s a major BC (and Canada) science and technology success story. My latest post (July 16, 2015) about their work featured researchers from California (US) using the TRIUMF cyclotron for imaging nanoscale materials and, on the more practical side, there’s a Mar. 6, 2015 posting about their breakthrough for producing nuclear material-free medical isotopes. Plus, Maclean’s Magazine ran a Jan. 3, 2016 article by Kate Lunau profiling an ‘art/science’ project that took place at TRIUMF (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s not every day that most people get to peek inside a world-class particle physics lab, where scientists probe deep mysteries of the universe. In September [2015], Vancouver’s TRIUMF—home to the world’s biggest cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator—opened its doors to professional and amateur photographers, part of an event called Global Physics Photowalk 2015. (Eight labs around the world participated, including CERN [European particle physics laboratory], in Geneva, where the Higgs boson particle was famously discovered.)

Here’s the local (Vancouver) jury’s pick for the winning image (from the Nov. 4, 2015 posting [Winning Photographs Revealed] by Alexis Fong on the TRIUMF website),

Caption: DESCANT (at TRIUMF) neutron detector array composed of 70 hexagonal detectors Credit: Pamela Joe McFarlane

Caption: DESCANT (at TRIUMF) neutron detector array composed of 70 hexagonal detectors Credit: Pamela Joe McFarlane

With all those hexagons and a spherical shape, the DESCANT looks like a ‘buckyball’ or buckminsterfullerene or C60  to me.

I hope the next Summit features TRIUMF and/or some other endeavours which exemplify, Science, Technology, and Creativity in British Columbia and Canada.

Onto the last booth,

  • MITACS was originally one of the Canadian federal government’s Network Centres for Excellence projects. It was focused on mathematics, networking, and innovation but once the money ran out the organization took a turn. These days, it’s describing itself as (from their About page) “a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 15 years. Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, we build partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.”Their Jan. 19, 2016 news release (coincidental with the #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016?) features a new report about improving international investment in Canada,

    Opportunities to improve Canada’s attractiveness for R&D investment were identified:

    1.Canada needs to better incentivize R&D by rebalancing direct and indirect support measures

    2.Canada requires a coordinated, client-centric approach to incentivizing R&D

    3.Canada needs to invest in training programs that grow the knowledge economy”

    Oddly, entrepreneurial/corporate/business types never have a problem with government spending when the money is coming to them; it’s only a problem when it’s social services.

    Back to MITACS, one of their more interesting (to me) projects was announced at the 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference. MITACS has inaugurated a Canadian Science Policy Fellowships programme which in its first year (pilot) will see up up to 10 academics applying their expertise to policy-making while embedded in various federal government agencies. I don’t believe anything similar has occurred here in Canada although, if memory serves, the Brits have a similar programme.

    Finally, I offer kudos to Sherry Zhao, MITACS Business Development Specialist, the only person to ask me how her organization might benefit my business. Admittedly I didn’t talk to a lot of people but it’s striking to me that at an ‘innovation and business’ tech summit, only one person approached me about doing business.  Of course, I’m not a male aged between 25 and 55. So, extra kudos to Sherry Zhao and MITACS.

Christy Clark (Premier of British Columbia), in her opening comments, stated 2800 (they were expecting about 1000) had signed up for the #BCTECH Summit. I haven’t been able to verify that number or get other additional information, e.g., business deals, research breakthroughs, etc. announced at the Summit. Regardless, it was exciting to attend and find out about the latest and greatest on the BC scene.

I wish all the participants great and good luck and look forward to next year’s where perhaps we’ll here about how the province plans to help with the ‘manufacturing middle’ issue. For new products you need to have facilities capable of reproducing your devices at a speed that satisfies your customers; see my Feb. 10, 2014 post featuring a report on this and other similar issues from the US General Accountability Office.

*’BCTECH Summit 2016′ link added Jan. 21, 2016.

#BCTECH: preview of Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016

It is the first and it is sold out. Fear Not! I have gotten a press pass so I can investigate a bit further. In the meantime, #BCTECH Summit 2016 is a joint venture between the province of British Columbia (BC, Canada) and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC), a crown corporation formerly known as the Science Council of British Columbia.  A Jan 6, 2016 BCIC news release tells the story,

With less than two weeks to go and tickets 95% sold out, world-renowned keynote speakers will reinforce technology’s increasing economic and social impact to more than 2,000 people during B.C.’s first #BCTECH Summit on Jan. 18 & 19, 2016.

With Microsoft confirmed as the title sponsor, the summit will feature numerous dynamic keynote speakers:

  •  Ray Kurzweil, inventor, futurist—described as “the restless genius”, with predictions that will change how people think about the future.
  •  Andrew Wilson, CEO, Electronic Arts—named one of the top people in business by Fortune magazine.
  •  T.K. “Ranga” Rengarajan, corporate vice-president, Microsoft—will explore how technology and the cloud is empowering Canadians and changing how we do business and interact in the digital world.
  •  Elyse Allan, president and CEO, GE Canada—named one of the 25 most powerful people in Canada.
  •  Eric Ries, pioneer of the Lean Startup movement—a new approach to business that’s being adopted around the world; changing the way companies are built and new products are launched.

In addition, panel discussions featuring B.C. business leaders and global thought leaders will explore the latest trends, including fintech, cleantech, big data and cyber security.

A technology showcase will feature B.C.’s most innovative technology at work, including robots, 3D printing and electric cars. A new exhibit, the 4D Portal, will take delegates on a journey of B.C. tech, from deep below the earth’s surface into outer space.

More than 500 high school and post-secondary students will also take part in the summit’s career showcase featuring speakers and exhibitors sharing the latest information about technology as a career choice that pays, on average, 60% more than the B.C. average.

As part of the career showcase, nearly 200 high school students will participate in a coding camp and learn basic coding skills. The coding camp will also be offered via live webcast so schools throughout the province can participate.

A key component of the summit will profile venture capital presentations made by 40 promising small- to medium-sized B.C. companies aiming to attract investors and proceed to the next stage of development.

B.C.’s technology sector, a key pillar of the BC Jobs Plan, is consistently growing faster than the economy overall. Its continued growth is integral to diversifying the Province’s economy, strengthening B.C.’s business landscape and creating jobs in B.C. communities.

The new $100 million venture capital BC Tech Fund, announced Dec. 8, 2015, is the first pillar of the comprehensive #BCTECH Strategy to be released in full at B.C.’s first #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016. The conference is presented by the B.C. government in partnership with the BC Innovation Council (BCIC). To register or learn more, go to: http://bctechsummit.ca

Quotes:

Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, Amrik Virk –

“Strengthening our technology sector is part of our commitment to support our diverse economy. The summit provides an unprecedented opportunity for like-minded individuals to get together and discuss ways of growing this sector and capitalizing from that growth.”

President and CEO, BCIC, Greg Caws –

“We are pleased to provide British Columbians from across the province with the opportunity to explore how technology impacts our lives and our businesses. Above all, the #BCTECH Summit will be a catalyst for all of us to embrace technology and an innovation mindset.”

President, Microsoft Canada, Janet Kennedy –

“Microsoft is proud to be the title sponsor of the #BCTECH Summit—an event that showcases B.C.’s vibrant technology industry. We are excited about the growth of B.C.’s tech sector and are pleased that we’re expanding our developer presence in Vancouver and supporting Canadian private and public sector organizations through our investments in Canadian data centres.”

Quick Facts:

  •  The technology sector directly employs more than 86,000 people, and wages for those jobs are 60% higher than B.C.’s industrial average.
  •  B.C.’s technology sector is growing faster than the overall economy. In 2013, it grew at a rate of 4.7%, higher than the 3.2% growth observed in the provincial economy.
  •  In 2013, the technology sector added $13.9 billion to B.C.’s GDP.
  •  B.C.’s 9,000 technology companies combined generated $23.3 billion in revenue in 2013.
  •  New technology companies are emerging at increasing rates throughout the province. In 2013, there was an addition of more than 700 new technology companies in B.C., an increase of 8% over the prior year.

I’m not a big fan of Kurzweil’s but the man can sell tickets and, in days past, he did develop some important software. You can find out more about him on his website and critiques can be found here on Quora, as well as, a thoughtful Nov. 5, 2012 piece by Gary Marcus for the New Yorker about Kurzweil’s latest book (“How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed”).

As for me, I’m most interested in the trade show/research row/technology showcase. Simon Fraser University sent out a Jan. 14, 2016 news release highlighting its participation in the trade show and summit (weirdly there was nothing from the other major local research institution, the University of British Columbia),

Simon Fraser University is a gold sponsor of the #BCTECH Summit a new two-day event presented by the B.C. government and the BC Innovation Council to showcase the province’s vibrant technology sector

 

Simon Fraser University will be highly visible at the inaugural #BCTECH Summit taking place on January 18-19 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

 

In addition to technology displays from student entrepreneurs at the SFU Innovates booth, SFU research will be featured at both the Technology Showcase and Research Row. [emphasis mine] SFU representatives will be on hand at the Career Showcase to speak to secondary and post-secondary students who are interested in the industry. And several investment-ready companies affiliated with SFU will be pitching to elite investors.

 

During the summit, entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, students and government will explore new ideas on how to gain a competitive advantage for B.C. The event will spark discussion on directions for the province’s rapidly developing high tech sector, while several streams will illustrate and share new innovations.

 

“This event provides us with an opportunity to showcase how SFU students, faculty, alumni and client companies are stimulating innovation and creating jobs and opportunities for British Columbia,“ says SFU Vice-President Research Joy Johnson. “And it highlights the work we’ve been doing to inspire, develop and support impact-driven innovation and entrepreneurship through SFU Innovates.”

 

SFU Innovates was launched in October to synergize and strengthen the university’s activities and resources related to community and industry engagement, incubation and acceleration, entrepreneurship and social innovation.

 

Johnson will introduce the summit’s keynote address by Eric Ries, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of The Lean Startup, on How today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, on Jan. 18 [2016] at 10:45 a.m.

 

SFU Faculty of Applied Sciences professor Ryan D’Arcy will be a panelist at a session titled Industry Deep Dive – Healthcare, moderated by Paul Drohan, CEO, Life Sciences BC, on Jan. 19 [2016] at 11 a.m. He will share how Surrey’s thriving Innovation Boulevard (IB) is progressing. SFU is a founding partner of IB and contributes via the university’s research strengths in health and technology and its focus on health tech innovation.

 

Steven Jones, an SFU professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and associate director and head of bioinformatics at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, BCCA [BC Cancer Agency], will participate on a panel titled Shaping the Future of Health, on Jan. 19 [2016] at 2:15 p.m., to be moderated by the Honourable Terry Lake, Minister of Health.

 

And Igor Faletski, CEO of Mobify (and an SFU alumnus) will participate in the “Why BC?” session to be moderated by Bill Tam, CEO of BCTIA [BC Technology Industry Association], on Jan. 18 [2016] at 11:30 a.m.

 

Students and delegates will also have the opportunity to explore the various research and technology showcases.

 

Backgrounder: SFU Innovations at #BCTECH Summit

 

Research Row

 

4D LABS will showcase how it has helped B.C.’s academic and industry tech clients turn their ideas into innovations. The facility has been instrumental in bringing numerous ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace, advancing a diverse range of technologies, including fuel cells, batteries, biosensors, security devices, pharmaceutical delivery, MEMS, and many more. As B.C.’s premier materials research institute, the open-access, $65 million state-of-the-art facility has helped to advance nearly 50 companies in the local tech sector.

 

• SFU researchers led by JC Liu of the Faculty of Applied Sciences will display their cloud gaming platform, Rhizome, utilizing the latest hardware support for both remote servers and local clients. The platform takes the first step towards bridging online gaming systems and the public cloud, accomplishing ultra-low latency and resulting in a low power consumption gaming experience. Their demo shows that gaming over virtualized cloud can be made possible with careful optimization and integration of different modules. They will also introduce CrowdNavigation, a complementary service to existing navigation systems that combats the “last mile puzzle” and helps drivers to determine the end of routes.

 

Molescope is a hand held tool that uses a smartphone to monitor skin for signs of cancer. The device is based on research that Maryam Sadeghi conducted during her doctoral studies at SFU and commercialized through her company, MetaOptima Inc., a former SFU Venture Connection client. The product was unveiled at the World Congress of Dermatology in 2015 and is also now available at the consumer level. Molescope enables people to monitor their moles and manage skin health.

 

Technology Showcase

 

• Engineering science professors Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park will showcase their Wearable Lower Limb Anthropomorphic Exoskeleton (WLLAE) – a lightweight, battery-operated and ergonomic robotic system to help those with mobility issues improve their lives. The exoskeleton features joints and links that correspond to those of a human body and sync with motion. SFU has designed, manufactured and tested a proof-of-concept prototype and the current version can mimic all the motions of hip joints. Researchers anticipate the next generation of this system early this year. The prototype will be live-demoed as an example of a breakthrough innovation.

 

Venture Capital Presentations

 

Several SFU-affiliated companies were selected to present investment pitches to local and international venture capitalists at the summit, including:

 

H+ Technology, creator of Holus, an interactive, tabletop holographic platform that converts any digital content from your tablet, smartphone, PC or Mac into a 360-degree holographic experience. H+ was co-founded by three SFU alumni and was a former client company of the SFU incubator at the Harbour Centre campus.

 

Optigo Networks, a VentureLabs® client company that delivers next-generation security for the commercial Internet of Things.

 

Saltworks Technologies Inc., provider of advanced water treatment solutions and a company founded by two graduates of SFU’s Management of Technology MBA program.

 

Semios, a VentureLabs® client company and emerging leader in agricultural technology innovation.

 

VeloMetro Mobility Inc., a former SFU Venture Connection and current VentureLabs® client company with the mission to provide people with human-powered vehicles that parallel automobile functionality for urban use.

 

SFU Innovates Trade Show will include:

 

• H+ Technology (see above)

 

Shield X Technology, creators of Brainshield™, an impact-diverting decal for sports helmets that is the result of six years of R&D at SFU’s School of Mechatronics Systems Engineering at the Surrey campus. An SFU spinout, it is a current VentureLabs® client company.

 

• Acceleration Innovations, creator of Birth Alert, the first ever app-enabled, automatic and wireless contraction-monitoring device. Acceleration Innovations was founded by a team of students from the Technology Entrepreneurship@SFU program.

 

ORA Scents, a mobile device company created by an SFU Beedie School of Business undergrad student, that is introducing the world’s first app-enabled scent diffuser that enables users to create, control and share personalized scents in real-time. [Sounds like oPhone mentioned in my June 18, 2014 posting.)

 

Also presenting at the VentureLabs area within the BC Accelerator Network Pavilion will be: PHEMI Health Systems, Semios, XCo, U R In Control, TeamFit, Instant, Wearable Therapeutics, V7 Entertainment, ThinkValue, and Aspect Biosystems. Lungpacer Medical and Metacreative, both companies formed around SFU faculty research, will also have exhibits.

 

Prize draws will be held for projects from RADIUS Slingshot ventures The Capilano Tea House & Botanical Soda Co. and Naked Snacks.

I’m particularly interested in what 4D Labs is doing these days. (They used to brand themselves as a nanotechnology laboratory but they’ve moved on to what they see as more sophisticated branding. I’m just curious. Have they changed focus or is it nanotechnology under a new name?)

NANOART Research Tool offers affordable paint analysis

There’s some encouraging news for art conservators and authenticators, an affordable nanotech-based kit for greater accuracy analyzing ancient (or old)  paint is one step closer according to a Jan. 11, 2016 notice on CORDIS,

Developed through the EU-funded NANOART project, the new testing kit has already been applied to identify binders such as collagen and ovalbumin in ancient paint, not only in model samples painted in the lab but also in real samples collected from works of art.

‘Once fully completed, our new tool will be made available to conservation scientists from around the world at an affordable cost (an assay can cost around EUR 0.5 per target), which will facilitate greater knowledge about historical works of art and help international museums, restoration art studios and laboratories to plan the best conservation and preventive strategies,’ explains NANOART project coordinator Dr Jesus de la Fuente from the CSIC/University of Zaragoza, Spain.

In addition, the sensitiveness of the project’s new nanotechnology-based methods means that smaller samples are required to be taken from the artwork for analysis. This in itself will help to better preserve our cultural heritage.

In order to characterise ancient paints, experts have often relied on conventional molecular biology methodologies that were developed decades ago. The concept behind the NANOART project was that these techniques could be substituted by more sensitive, inexpensive and faster techniques that take advantage of emerging nanotechnologies.

Furthermore, conventional methods – apart from being expensive – are also only available at a few laboratories, and require specialised personnel and equipment. A key objective of the NANOART project has been to address the cost issue by applying techniques developed for clinical diagnosis. In this way, the project is also highly original as it aims to take latest developments in clinical medicine and apply them to the conservation and preservation of cultural heritage.

‘The innovative nature of the project is also denoted by the fact that there is currently no method or kit available that can be easily used at point-of-care to analyse paints without requiring expensive equipment and extensive training,’ says Ana Claro, research fellow from the INA/University of Zaragoza. ‘With the NANOART kit, the final user will be able to conduct an affordable analysis (in some cases at the cost of only a few euros) by simply following the instructions. Within a four-hour period, the results will be available.’

The potential opportunities opened up by the new analytical nanotechnology are huge. For example, developed in parallel with the NANOART kit, a spin-off company called NanoImmunotech has been launched in order to develop devices to detect bacterial infection in meat using the same technology as used in NANOART.

‘This opens our technology to other applications far from cultural heritage applications,’ says de la Fuente. ‘However, we would like to continue further developing novel uses of NANOART technology for other applications in cultural heritage, and our next step will be to look for funding to develop an even more user friendly device.’

This announcement comes just as the NANOART project is scheduled to be completed (Jan. 31, 2016) according to its webpage on CORDIS.

For those with Spanish language skills, there’s this Jan. 11, 2016 news item on the Catalunya Vanguardista website (I believe the English language version above is a machine translation with this being the original text),

Nanotecnología para analizar pinturas históricas de forma barata y precisa

Empleando nanotecnologías, se ha creado un equipo de diagnóstico clínico destinado a analizar capas de pintura antiguas que podría ahorrar costes a los profesionales de la conservación y permitirles alcanzar mayor precisión.

Cordis / El nuevo equipo de ensayo, desarrollado mediante el proyecto financiado con fondos europeos NANOART, ya se ha empleado en la identificación de aglutinantes como el colágeno y la ovoalbúmina en pinturas históricas. Además, los resultados se han obtenido tanto con muestras pintadas en el laboratorio como con otras extraídas de obras de arte.

«Una vez completemos su desarrollo, nuestra herramienta quedará a disposición de científicos de todo el mundo dedicados a la conservación por un módico precio (cada ensayo costará cerca de medio euro por objetivo). De este modo se obtendrá un conocimiento más profundo sobre las obras de arte históricas y tanto museos como talleres de restauración y laboratorios podrán plantear las estrategias de conservación y prevención idóneas», explicó el coordinador del proyecto, el Dr. Jesús de la Fuente del Instituto de Ciencia de los Materiales —centro mixto dependiente del CSIC y la Universidad de Zaragoza (España)—.Además, la sensibilidad ofrecida por los métodos nanotecnológicos propuestos por el proyecto permite extraer muestras de menor tamaño de las obras de arte, lo cual contribuirá a conservar mejor el patrimonio cultural.Para caracterizar pinturas antiguas, hasta ahora los expertos solían emplear metodologías convencionales de la biología molecular desarrolladas hace decenios. La propuesta del proyecto NANOART pasa por sustituir estas técnicas por otras más sensibles, baratas y rápidas que se valen de las nanotecnologías emergentes.

Es más, los métodos convencionales, además de resultar caros, sólo están a disposición de unos pocos laboratorios que cuentan con equipos y personal especializados. NANOART se propuso sobre todo abaratar los costes mediante el empleo de técnicas de diagnóstico del ámbito clínico. La originalidad de este planteamiento es notoria, pues aprovecha los últimos progresos logrados en medicina clínica para aplicarlos a la conservación y la protección del patrimonio cultural.

«La naturaleza innovadora del proyecto también obedece a la carencia hoy en día de un método o equipo que pueda emplearse con facilidad in situ para analizar pinturas sin necesidad de equipos caros ni formación exhaustiva», afirmó Ana Claro, investigadora del INA de la Universidad de Zaragoza. «Gracias al equipo de NANOART, el usuario final podrá ejecutar ensayos asequibles, en algunos casos por valor de tan sólo unos pocos euros, siguiendo las instrucciones proporcionadas. Los resultados estarán disponibles en cuatro horas».

Las oportunidades que ofrece la nueva nanotecnología analítica son enormes. Por ejemplo, la empresa derivada NanoImmunotech se ha puesto en marcha en paralelo al desarrollo del equipo de NANOART para que cree servicios con los que detectar infecciones bacterianas en la carne mediante los mismos métodos empleados por el proyecto en el ámbito del arte.

«De esta forma se amplían las aplicaciones de la tecnología a otros campos muy alejados del patrimonio cultural», afirmó de la Fuente. «No obstante, seguiremos indagando en nuevos usos de la tecnología de NANOART relacionados con el patrimonio cultural y procederemos ya a buscar fuentes de financiación que nos permitan crear un dispositivo aún más fácil de usar».

I expect the folks at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) and other such insitutions are keeping a close eye on developments of this nature. The institute was mentioned here in the context of a series I wrote on attempts to authenticate a painting, Autumn Harbour, as a Lawren Harris (one of Canada’s Group of Seven painters). My July 14, 2014 post was devoted to a response from Marie-Claude Corbeil to a query about scientific investigation of visual art,

… [the response],

The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has been conducting research into the materials and techniques of Canadian artists (mainly 20th-century artists) since the early 1990s. Databases were created for each artists. At the moment CCI has no such database on Harris.

The CCI is the only institution in Canada carrying out this kind of research. I would add that European conservation institutes or laboratories have a long tradition of conducting this type of research focusing mainly on European art, basically because many were created long before North-American conservation institutes or laboratories were established.

I was quite fascinated by the whole thing and wrote a four-part series about Autumn Harbour, Lawren Harris, and much more, as well as, the July 14, 2014 post, which has links to the Autumn Harbour series along with the response from the CCI and links to articles recommended by Corbeil.

Spermbot alternative for infertility issues

A German team that’s been working with sperm to develop a biological motor has announced it may have an alternative treatment for infertility, according to a Jan. 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Sperm that don’t swim well [also known as low motility] rank high among the main causes of infertility. To give these cells a boost, women trying to conceive can turn to artificial insemination or other assisted reproduction techniques, but success can be elusive. In an attempt to improve these odds, scientists have developed motorized “spermbots” that can deliver poor swimmers — that are otherwise healthy — to an egg. …

A Jan. 13, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (*also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Artificial insemination is a relatively inexpensive and simple technique that involves introducing sperm to a woman’s uterus with a medical instrument. Overall, the success rate is on average under 30 percent, according to the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority of the United Kingdom. In vitro fertilization can be more effective, but it’s a complicated and expensive process. It requires removing eggs from a woman’s ovaries with a needle, fertilizing them outside the body and then transferring the embryos to her uterus or a surrogate’s a few days later. Each step comes with a risk for failure. Mariana Medina-Sánchez, Lukas Schwarz, Oliver G. Schmidt and colleagues from the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences at IFW Dresden in Germany wanted to see if they could come up with a better option than the existing methods.

Building on previous work on micromotors, the researchers constructed tiny metal helices just large enough to fit around the tail of a sperm. Their movements can be controlled by a rotating magnetic field. Lab testing showed that the motors can be directed to slip around a sperm cell, drive it to an egg for potential fertilization and then release it. The researchers say that although much more work needs to be done before their technique can reach clinical testing, the success of their initial demonstration is a promising start.

For those who prefer to watch their news, there’s this,


This team got a flurry of interest in 2014 when they first announced their research on using sperm as a biological motor. Tracy Staedter in a Jan. 15, 2014 article for Discovery.com describes their then results,

To create these tiny robots, the scientists first had to catch a few. First, they designed microtubes, which are essentially thin sheets of titanium and iron — which have a magnetic property — rolled into conical tubes, with one end wider than the other. Next, they put the microtubes into a solution in a Petri dish and added bovine sperm cells, which are similar size to human sperm. When a live sperm entered the wider end of the tube, it became trapped down near the narrow end. The scientists also closed the wider end, so the sperm wouldn’t swim out. And because sperm are so determined, the trapped cell pushed against the tube, moving it forward.

Next, the scientists used a magnetic field to guide the tube in the direction they wanted it to go, relying on the sperm for the propulsion.

The quick swimming spermbots could use controlled from outside a person body to deliver payloads of drugs and even sperm itself to parts of the body where its needed, whether that’s a cancer tumor or an egg.

This work isn’t nanotechnology per se but it has been published in ACS Nano Letters. Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Cellular Cargo Delivery: Toward Assisted Fertilization by Sperm-Carrying Micromotors by Mariana Medina-Sánchez, Lukas Schwarz, Anne K. Meyer, Franziska Hebenstreit, and Oliver G. Schmidt. Nano Lett., 2016, 16 (1), pp 555–561 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b04221 Publication Date (Web): December 21, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

*'(also on EurekAlert)’ text and link added Jan. 14, 2016.

University of Malaya (Malaysia) and Harvard University (US) partner on nanomedicine/prevention projects

Unusually for a ‘nanomedicine’ project, the talk turned to prevention during a Jan. 10, 2016 teleconference featuring Dr. Noor Hayaty Abu Kasim of the University of Malaya and Dr. Wong Tin Wui of the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Dr. Joseph Brain of  Harvard University in a discussion about Malaysia’s major investment in nanomedicine treatment for lung diseases.

A Jan. 11, 2016 Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) news release on EurekAlert announces both the lung project (University of Malaya/Harvard University) and others under Malaysia’s NanoMITe (Malaysia Institute for Innovative Nanotechnology) banner,

Malaysian scientists are joining forces with Harvard University experts to help revolutionize the treatment of lung diseases — the delivery of nanomedicine deep into places otherwise impossible to reach.

Under a five-year memorandum of understanding between Harvard and the University of Malaya, Malaysian scientists will join a distinguished team seeking a safe, more effective way of tackling lung problems including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the progressive, irreversible obstruction of airways causing almost 1 in 10 deaths today.

Treatment of COPD and lung cancer commonly involves chemotherapeutics and corticosteroids misted into a fine spray and inhaled, enabling direct delivery to the lungs and quick medicinal effect. However, because the particles produced by today’s inhalers are large, most of the medicine is deposited in the upper respiratory tract.

The Harvard team, within the university’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is working on “smart” nanoparticles that deliver appropriate levels of diagnostic and therapeutic agents to the deepest, tiniest sacs of the lung, a process potentially assisted by the use of magnetic fields.

Malaysia’s role within the international collaboration: help ensure the safety and improve the effectiveness of nanomedicine, assessing how nanomedicine particles behave in the body, what attaches to them to form a coating, where the drug accumulates and how it interacts with target and non-target cells.

Led by Joseph Brain, the Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology, the research draws on extensive expertise at Harvard in biokinetics — determining how to administer medicine to achieve the proper dosage to impact target cells and assessing the extent to which drug-loaded nanoparticles pass through biological barriers to different organs.

The studies also build on decades of experience studying the biology of macrophages — large, specialized cells that recognize, engulf and destroy target cells as part of the human immune system.

Manipulating immune cells represents an important strategy for treating lung diseases like COPD and lung cancer, as well as infectious diseases including tuberculosis and listeriosis.

Dr. Brain notes that every day humans breathe 20,000 litres of air loaded with bacteria and viruses, and that the world’s deadliest epidemic — an outbreak of airborne influenza in the 1920s — killed tens of millions.

Inhaled nanomedicine holds the promise of helping doctors prevent and treat such problems in future, reaching the target area more swiftly than if administered orally or even intravenously.

This is particularly true for lung cancer, says Dr. Brain. “Experiments have demonstrated that a drug dose administered directly to the respiratory tract achieves much higher local drug concentrations at the target site.”

COPD meanwhile affects over 235 million people worldwide and is on the rise, with 80% of cases caused by cigarette smoking. Exacerbated by poor air quality, COPD is expected to rise from 5th to 3rd place among humanity’s most lethal health problems by 2030.

“Nanotechnology is making a significant impact on healthcare by delivering improvements in disease diagnosis and monitoring, as well as enabling new approaches to regenerative medicine and drug delivery,” says Prof. Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

“Malaysia, through NanoMITe, is proud and excited to join the Harvard team and contribute to the creation of these life-giving innovations.”

While neither Dr. Abu Kasim nor Dr. Wong are included in the news release both are key members of the Malaysian team tasked to work on nanomedicines for lung disease. Dr. Abu Kasim is a professor of restorative dentistry at the University of Malaya and familiar with nanotechnology-enabled materials and nanoparticles through her work in that field. She is also the project lead for NanoMITe’s Project 4: Consequences of Smoking among the Malaysian Population. From the project webpage,

Smoking is a prevalent problem worldwide but especially so in Asia where nearly more than half of the world population reside. Smoking kills half of its users and despite the many documented harm to health is still a major problem. Globally six million lives are lost each year because of this addiction. This number is estimated to increase to ten million within the next two decades. Apart from the mortality, smokers are at increased risk of health morbidities of smoking which is a major risk factor for many non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as heart diseases, respiratory conditions and even mental health. Together, smoking reduces life expectancy 10-15 years compared to a non-smoker. Those with mental health lose double the years, 20 -25 years of their life as a result of their smoking. The current Malaysia death toll is at 10,000 lives per year due to smoking related health complications.

Although the health impact of smoking has been reported at length, this information is limited nationally. Lung cancer for example is closely linked to smoking, however, the study of the link between the two is lacking in Malaysia. Lung cancer particularly in Malaysia is also often diagnosed late, usually at stages 3 and 4. These stages of cancer are linked with a poorer prognosis. As a result to the harms to health either directly or indirectly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has introduced a legal treaty, the first, called the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC). This treaty currently ratified by 174 countries was introduced in 2005 and consists of 38 FCTC Articles which are evidence based policies, known to assist member countries to reduce their smoking prevalence. Malaysia is an early signatory and early adopter of the MPOWER strategy which are major articles of the FCTC. Among them are education and information dissemination informing the dangers of smoking which can be done through awareness campaigns of advocacy using civil society groups. Most campaigns have focused on health harms with little mention non-health or environmental harm as a result of smoking. Therefore there is an opportunity to further develop this idea as a strong advocacy point towards a smoke-free generation in the near future

It is difficult impossible to recall any other nanomedicine initiative that has so thoroughly embedded prevention as part of its mandate. As Dr. Brain puts it, “Malaysia’s commitment to better health for everyone—sometimes, I’m jealous.”

Getting back to nanomedicine, it’s Dr. Wong, an associate professor in the school of pharmaceutics at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), who is developing polymeric nanoparticles designed to carry medications into the lungs and Brain who will work on the best method of transport. From Dr. Brain’s webpage,

Dr. Brain’s research emphasizes responses to inhaled gases, particulates, and microbes. His studies extend from the deposition of inhaled particles in the respiratory tract to their clearance by respiratory defense mechanisms. Of particular interest is the role of lung macrophages; this resident cell keeps lung surfaces clean and sterile. Moreover, the lung macrophage is also a critical regulator of inflammatory and immune responses. The context of these studies on macrophages is the prevention and pathogenesis of environmental lung disease as well as respiratory infection.

His research has utilized magnetic particles in macrophages throughout the body as a non-invasive tool for measuring cell motility and the response of macrophages to various mediators and toxins. …

It was difficult to get any specifics about the proposed lung nanomedicine effort as it seems to be at a very early stage.

  • Malaysia through the Ministry of Higher Education with matching funds from the University of Malaya is funding this effort with 1M Ringgits ($300,00 USD) per year over five years for a total of 5M Ringgits ($1.5M USD)
  • A Malaysian researcher will be going to Harvard to collaborate directly with Dr. Brain and others on his team. The first will be Dr. Wong who will come to Harvard in June 2016 where he will work with his polymeric nanoparticles (vehicles for medications) and where Brain will examine transport strategies (aerosol, intrathecal administration, etc.) for those nanoparticle-bearing medications.
  • There will be a series of comparative studies of smoking in Malaysia and the US and other information efforts designed to support prevention strategies.

One last tidbit about research, Dr. Brain will be testing the nanoparticle-bearing medication once it has entered the lung using the ‘precision cut lung slices’ technique, as an alternative to some, if not all, in vivo testing.

Final comments

Nanomedicine is highly competitive and the Malaysians are interested in commercializing their efforts which according to Dr. Abu Kasim is one of the reasons they approached Harvard and Dr. Brain.

Should you find any errors please do let me know.

Do you really want to swallow a ‘smart pill’ to measure intestinal gas or anything else?

Caption: Smart gas sensing pills developed at RMIT University can measure intestinal gases inside the gut and send the data directly to a mobile phone. Credit: RMIT University

Caption: Smart gas sensing pills developed at RMIT University can measure intestinal gases inside the gut and send the data directly to a mobile phone.
Credit: RMIT University

Researchers at RMIT University (Australia) have tested a ‘smart pill’ (or sensor/wireless transmitter) on animals according to a Jan. 12, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers have conducted the first ever trials of smart pills that can measure intestinal gases inside the body, with surprising results revealing some unexpected ways that fiber affects the gut.

Intestinal gases have been linked to colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but their role in health is poorly understood and there is currently no easy and reliable tool for detecting them inside the gut.

The first animal trials of smart gas sensing pills developed at Australia’s RMIT University — which can send data from inside the gut directly to a mobile phone — have examined the impact of low and high-fibre diets on intestinal gases and offer new clues for the development of treatments for gut disorders.

Lead investigator Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, from the Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors at RMIT, said the results reversed current assumptions about the effect of fibre on the gut.

A Jan. 12, 2016 RMIT University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“We found a low-fibre diet produced four times more hydrogen in the small intestine than a high-fibre diet,” Kalantar-zadeh said.

“This was a complete surprise because hydrogen is produced through fermentation, so we naturally expected more fibre would equal more of this fermentation gas.

“The smart pills allow us to identify precisely where the gases are produced and help us understand the microbial activity in these areas – it’s the first step in demolishing the myths of food effects on our body and replacing those myths with hard facts.

“We hope this technology will in future enable researchers to design personalised diets or drugs that can efficiently target problem areas in the gut, to help the millions of people worldwide that are affected by digestive disorders and diseases.”

The trials revealed different levels of fibre in a diet affected both how much gas was produced and where it was concentrated in the gut – in the stomach, small intestine or large intestine.

The smart pills were trialled on two groups of pigs – whose digestive systems are similar to humans – fed high and low-fibre diets. The results indicate the technology could help doctors differentiate gut disorders such as IBS, showing:

  • high-fibre diets produce more methane gas in the large intestine than the low-fibre diet, suggesting that painful gut gas retention could be avoided by cutting back on high-fibre food
  • low-fibre diets produced four times more hydrogen gas in the small intestine than high-fibre, indicating a high-fibre regimen could be better for patients with IBS caused by bacterial overgrowth in small intestine
  • the ratio of carbon dioxide and methane gases remained the same in the large intestine for both diets, suggesting that neither diet would be helpful for people suffering IBS diseases associated with excess methane concentration

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Intestinal Gas Capsules: A Proof-of-Concept Demonstration by Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, Chu K. Yao, Kyle J. Berean, Nam Ha, Jian Zhen Ou, Stephanie A. Ward, Naresh Pillai, Julian Hill, Jeremy J. Cottrell, Frank R. Dunshea, Chris McSweeney, Jane G. Muir, and  Peter R. Gibson. Gastroenterology January 2016Volume 150, Issue 1, Pages 37–39 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2015.07.072

This article appears to be open access.

Getting back to my question, will people be willing to swallow these things? The study indicates that four pigs, in total, were tested and killed afterwards. The ‘smart pill’ measurements were compared to others made with standard technologies to assure researchers the new technology was viable. This particular study seems to have served as a proof of concept rather than an in-depth analysis of intestinal gases. As to whether or not anyone will ever be asked to swallow one of these ‘smart pills’ (sensor/wireless transmitter), the scientists did not share any plans for human clinical trials. I guess one of the big questions would be, what happens to the pill (stay in your gut or expelled) once you’ve gotten your measurements?