Category Archives: medicine

Imprinting fibres at the nanometric scale

Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) announces a discovery in a Jan. 24, 2017 press release (also on EurkeAlert),

Researchers at EPFL have come up with a way of imprinting nanometric patterns on the inside and outside of polymer fibers. These fibers could prove useful in guiding nerve regeneration and producing optical effects, for example, as well as in eventually creating artificial tissue and smart bandages.

Researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Photonic Materials and Fibre Devices, which is run by Fabien Sorin, have come up with a simple and innovative technique for drawing or imprinting complex, nanometric patterns on hollow polymer fibers. Their work has been published in Advanced Functional Materials.

The potential applications of this breakthrough are numerous. The imprinted designs could be used to impart certain optical effects on a fiber or make it water-resistant. They could also guide stem-cell growth in textured fiber channels or be used to break down the fiber at a specific location and point in time in order to release drugs as part of a smart bandage.

Stretching the fiber like molten plastic

To make their nanometric imprints, the researchers began with a technique called thermal drawing, which is the technique used to fabricate optical fibers. Thermal drawing involves engraving or imprinting millimeter-sized patterns on a preform, which is a macroscopic version of the target fiber. The imprinted preform is heated to change its viscosity, stretched like molten plastic into a long, thin fiber and then allowed to harden again. Stretching causes the pattern to shrink while maintaining its proportions and position. Yet this method has a major shortcoming: the pattern does not remain intact below the micrometer scale. “When the fiber is stretched, the surface tension of the structured polymer causes the pattern to deform and even disappear below a certain size, around several microns,” said Sorin.

To avoid this problem, the EPFL researchers came up with the idea of sandwiching the imprinted preform in a sacrificial polymer [emphasis mine]. This polymer protects the pattern during stretching by reducing the surface tension. It is discarded once the stretching is complete. Thanks to this trick, the researchers are able to apply tiny and highly complex patterns to various types of fibers. “We have achieved 300-nanometer patterns, but we could easily make them as small as several tens of nanometers,” said Sorin. This is the first time that such minute and highly complex patterns have been imprinted on flexible fiber on a very large scale. “This technique enables to achieve textures with feature sizes two order of magnitude smaller than previously reported,” said Sorin. “It could be applied to kilometers of fibers at a highly reasonable cost.”

To highlight potential applications of their achievement, the researchers teamed up with the Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology, led by Stéphanie Lacour. Working in vitro, they were able to use their fibers to guide neurites from a spinal ganglion (on the spinal nerve). This was an encouraging step toward using these fibers to help nerves regenerate or to create artificial tissue.

This development could have implications in many other fields besides biology. “Fibers that are rendered water-resistant by the pattern could be used to make clothes. Or we could give the fibers special optical effects for design or detection purposes. There is also much to be done with the many new microfluidic systems out there,” said Sorin. The next step for the researchers will be to join forces with other EPFL labs on initiatives such as studying in vivo nerve regeneration. All this, thanks to the wonder of imprinted polymer fibers.

I like the term “sacrificial polymer.”

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

Controlled Sub-Micrometer Hierarchical Textures Engineered in Polymeric Fibers and Microchannels via Thermal Drawing by Tung Nguyen-Dang, Alba C. de Luca, Wei Yan, Yunpeng Qu, Alexis G. Page, Marco Volpi, Tapajyoti Das Gupta, Stéphanie P. Lacour, and Fabien Sorin. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201605935 Version of Record online: 24 JAN 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Faster diagnostics with nanoparticles and magnetic phenomenon discovered 170 years ago

A Jan. 19, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announces some new research from the University of Central Florida (UCF),

A UCF researcher has combined cutting-edge nanoscience with a magnetic phenomenon discovered more than 170 years ago to create a method for speedy medical tests.

The discovery, if commercialized, could lead to faster test results for HIV, Lyme disease, syphilis, rotavirus and other infectious conditions.

“I see no reason why a variation of this technique couldn’t be in every hospital throughout the world,” said Shawn Putnam, an assistant professor in the University of Central Florida’s College of Engineering & Computer Science.

A Jan. 19, 2017 UCF news release by Mark Schlueb, which originated the news item,  provides more technical detail,

At the core of the research recently published in the academic journal Small are nanoparticles – tiny particles that are one-billionth of a meter. Putnam’s team coated nanoparticles with the antibody to BSA, or bovine serum albumin, which is commonly used as the basis of a variety of diagnostic tests.

By mixing the nanoparticles in a test solution – such as one used for a blood test – the BSA proteins preferentially bind with the antibodies that coat the nanoparticles, like a lock and key.

That reaction was already well known. But Putnam’s team came up with a novel way of measuring the quantity of proteins present. He used nanoparticles with an iron core and applied a magnetic field to the solution, causing the particles to align in a particular formation. As proteins bind to the antibody-coated particles, the rotation of the particles becomes sluggish, which is easy to detect with laser optics.

The interaction of a magnetic field and light is known as Faraday rotation, a principle discovered by scientist Michael Faraday in 1845. Putnam adapted it for biological use.

“It’s an old theory, but no one has actually applied this aspect of it,” he said.

Other antigens and their unique antibodies could be substituted for the BSA protein used in the research, allowing medical tests for a wide array of infectious diseases.

The proof of concept shows the method could be used to produce biochemical immunology test results in as little as 15 minutes, compared to several hours for ELISA, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, which is currently a standard approach for biomolecule detection.

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

High-Throughput, Protein-Targeted Biomolecular Detection Using Frequency-Domain Faraday Rotation Spectroscopy by Richard J. Murdock, Shawn A. Putnam, Soumen Das, Ankur Gupta, Elyse D. Z. Chase, and Sudipta Seal. Small DOI: 10.1002/smll.201602862 Version of Record online: 16 JAN 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

‘Superhemophobic’ medical implants

Counterintuitively, repelling blood is the concept behind a new type of medical implant according to a Jan. 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Medical implants like stents, catheters and tubing introduce risk for blood clotting and infection — a perpetual problem for many patients.

Colorado State University engineers offer a potential solution: A specially grown, “superhemophobic” titanium surface that’s extremely repellent to blood. The material could form the basis for surgical implants with lower risk of rejection by the body.

Blood, plasma and water droplets beading on a superomniphobic surface. CSU researchers have created a superhemophobic titanium surface, repellent to blood, that has potential applications for biocompatible medical devices. Courtesy: Colorado State University

A Jan. 18, 2017 Colorado State University news release by Anne Ju Manning, which originated the news item, explains more,

t’s an outside-the-box innovation achieved at the intersection of two disciplines: biomedical engineering and materials science. The work, recently published in Advanced Healthcare Materials, is a collaboration between the labs of Arun Kota, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering; and Ketul Popat, associate professor in the same departments.

Kota, an expert in novel, “superomniphobic” materials that repel virtually any liquid, joined forces with Popat, an innovator in tissue engineering and bio-compatible materials. Starting with sheets of titanium, commonly used for medical devices, their labs grew chemically altered surfaces that act as perfect barriers between the titanium and blood. Their teams conducted experiments showing very low levels of platelet adhesion, a biological process that leads to blood clotting and eventual rejection of a foreign material.

Chemical compatibility

A material “phobic” (repellent) to blood might seem counterintuitive, the researchers say, as often biomedical scientists use materials “philic” (with affinity) to blood to make them biologically compatible. “What we are doing is the exact opposite,” Kota said. “We are taking a material that blood hates to come in contact with, in order to make it compatible with blood.” The key innovation is that the surface is so repellent, that blood is tricked into believing there’s virtually no foreign material there at all.

The undesirable interaction of blood with foreign materials is an ongoing problem in medical research, Popat said. Over time, stents can form clots, obstructions, and lead to heart attacks or embolisms. Often patients need blood-thinning medications for the rest of their lives – and the drugs aren’t foolproof.

“The reason blood clots is because it finds cells in the blood to go to and attach,” Popat said. “Normally, blood flows in vessels. If we can design materials where blood barely contacts the surface, there is virtually no chance of clotting, which is a coordinated set of events. Here, we’re targeting the prevention of the first set of events.”


Fluorinated nanotubes provided the best superhemophobic surface in the researchers’ experiments.

The researchers analyzed variations of titanium surfaces, including different textures and chemistries, and they compared the extent of platelet adhesion and activation. Fluorinated nanotubes offered the best protection against clotting, and they plan to conduct follow-up experiments.

Growing a surface and testing it in the lab is only the beginning, the researchers say. They want to continue examining other clotting factors, and eventually, to test real medical devices.

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

Hemocompatibility of Superhemophobic Titania Surfaces by Sanli Movafaghi, Victoria Leszczak, Wei Wang, Jonathan A. Sorkin, Lakshmi P. Dasi, Ketul C. Popat, and Arun K. Kota. Advanced Healthcare Materials DOI: 10.1002/adhm.201600717 Version of Record online: 21 DEC 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

Nanoparticles can activate viruses lying dormant in lung cells

The nanoparticles in question are from combustion engines, which means that we are exposed to them. One other note, the testing has not been done on humans but rather on cells. From a Jan. 16, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Nanoparticles from combustion engines can activate viruses that are dormant in in lung tissue cells. This is the result of a study by researchers of Helmholtz Zentrum München, a partner in the German Center for Lung Research (DZL), which has now been published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology.

To evade the immune system, some viruses hide in cells of their host and persist there. In medical terminology, this state is referred to as a latent infection. If the immune system becomes weakened or if certain conditions change, the viruses become active again, begin to proliferate and destroy the host cell. A team of scientists led by Dr. Tobias Stöger of the Institute of Lung Biology and Prof. Dr. Heiko Adler, deputy head of the research unit Lung Repair and Regeneration at Helmholtz Zentrum München, now report that nanoparticles can also trigger this process.

A Jan. 16, 2017 Helmholtz Zentrum München press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“From previous model studies we already knew that the inhalation of nanoparticles has an inflammatory effect and alters the immune system,” said study leader Stöger. Together with his colleagues Heiko Adler and Prof. Dr. Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, he showed that “an exposure to nanoparticles can reactivate latent herpes viruses in the lung.”

Specifically, the scientists tested the influence of nanoparticles typically generated by fossil fuel combustion in an experimental model for a particular herpes virus infection. They detected a significant increase in viral proteins, which are only produced with active virus proliferation. “Metabolic and gene expression analyses also revealed patterns resembling acute infection,” said Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, head of the research unit Analytical BioGeoChemistry (BGC). Moreover, further experiments with human cells demonstrated that Epstein-Barr viruses are also ‘awakened’ when they come into contact with the nanoparticles.

Potential approach for chronic lung diseases

In further studies, the research team would like to test whether the results can also be transferred to humans. “Many people carry herpes viruses, and patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis are particularly affected,” said Heiko Adler. “If the results are confirmed in humans, it would be important to investigate the molecular process of the reactivation of latent herpes viruses induced by particle inhalation. Then we could try to influence this pathway therapeutically.”

Special cell culture models shall therefore elucidate the exact mechanism of virus reactivation by nanoparticles. “In addition,” Stöger said, ”in long-term studies we would like to investigate to what extent  repeated nanoparticle exposure with corresponding virus reactivation leads to chronic inflammatory and remodeling processes in the lung.”

Further Information

In 2015 another group at the Helmholtz Zentrum München demonstrated how the Epstein-Barr virus  hides in human cells. In March 2016 researchers also showed that microRNAs silence immune alarm signals of cells infected with the Epstein-Barr virus.

Original Publication:
Sattler, C. et al. (2016): Nanoparticle exposure reactivates latent herpesvirus and restores a signature of acute infection. Particle and Fibre Toxicology, DOI 10.1186/s12989-016-0181-1

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper on investigating latent herpes virus,

Nanoparticle exposure reactivates latent herpesvirus and restores a signature of acute infection by Christine Sattler, Franco Moritz, Shanze Chen, Beatrix Steer, David Kutschke, Martin Irmler, Johannes Beckers, Oliver Eickelberg, Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, Heiko Adler. Particle and Fibre Toxicology201714:2 DOI: 10.1186/s12989-016-0181-1 Published: 10 January 2017

©  The Author(s). 2017

This paper is open access and, so too, is the 2016 paper.

What is a multiregional brain-on-a-chip?

In response to having created a multiregional brain-on-a-chip, there’s an explanation from the team at Harvard University (which answers my question) in a Jan. 13, 2017 Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences news release (also on EurekAlert) by Leah Burrows,

Harvard University researchers have developed a multiregional brain-on-a-chip that models the connectivity between three distinct regions of the brain. The in vitro model was used to extensively characterize the differences between neurons from different regions of the brain and to mimic the system’s connectivity.

“The brain is so much more than individual neurons,” said Ben Maoz, co-first author of the paper and postdoctoral fellow in the Disease Biophysics Group in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “It’s about the different types of cells and the connectivity between different regions of the brain. When modeling the brain, you need to be able to recapitulate that connectivity because there are many different diseases that attack those connections.”

“Roughly twenty-six percent of the US healthcare budget is spent on neurological and psychiatric disorders,” said Kit Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics Building at SEAS and Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. “Tools to support the development of therapeutics to alleviate the suffering of these patients is not only the human thing to do, it is the best means of reducing this cost.”

Researchers from the Disease Biophysics Group at SEAS and the Wyss Institute modeled three regions of the brain most affected by schizophrenia — the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

They began by characterizing the cell composition, protein expression, metabolism, and electrical activity of neurons from each region in vitro.

“It’s no surprise that neurons in distinct regions of the brain are different but it is surprising just how different they are,” said Stephanie Dauth, co-first author of the paper and former postdoctoral fellow in the Disease Biophysics Group. “We found that the cell-type ratio, the metabolism, the protein expression and the electrical activity all differ between regions in vitro. This shows that it does make a difference which brain region’s neurons you’re working with.”

Next, the team looked at how these neurons change when they’re communicating with one another. To do that, they cultured cells from each region independently and then let the cells establish connections via guided pathways embedded in the chip.

The researchers then measured cell composition and electrical activity again and found that the cells dramatically changed when they were in contact with neurons from different regions.

“When the cells are communicating with other regions, the cellular composition of the culture changes, the electrophysiology changes, all these inherent properties of the neurons change,” said Maoz. “This shows how important it is to implement different brain regions into in vitro models, especially when studying how neurological diseases impact connected regions of the brain.”

To demonstrate the chip’s efficacy in modeling disease, the team doped different regions of the brain with the drug Phencyclidine hydrochloride — commonly known as PCP — which simulates schizophrenia. The brain-on-a-chip allowed the researchers for the first time to look at both the drug’s impact on the individual regions as well as its downstream effect on the interconnected regions in vitro.

The brain-on-a-chip could be useful for studying any number of neurological and psychiatric diseases, including drug addiction, post traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury.

“To date, the Connectome project has not recognized all of the networks in the brain,” said Parker. “In our studies, we are showing that the extracellular matrix network is an important part of distinguishing different brain regions and that, subsequently, physiological and pathophysiological processes in these brain regions are unique. This advance will not only enable the development of therapeutics, but fundamental insights as to how we think, feel, and survive.”

Here’s an image from the researchers,

Caption: Image of the in vitro model showing three distinct regions of the brain connected by axons. Credit: Disease Biophysics Group/Harvard University

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

Neurons derived from different brain regions are inherently different in vitro: A novel multiregional brain-on-a-chip by Stephanie Dauth, Ben M Maoz, Sean P Sheehy, Matthew A Hemphill, Tara Murty, Mary Kate Macedonia, Angie M Greer, Bogdan Budnik, Kevin Kit Parker. Journal of Neurophysiology Published 28 December 2016 Vol. no. [?] , DOI: 10.1152/jn.00575.2016

This paper is behind a paywall and they haven’t included the vol. no. in the citation I’ve found.

Monitoring the life of bacteria in microdroplets

Trying to establish better ways to test the effect of drugs on bacteria has led the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences to develop a new monitoring technique. From a Jan.  11, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

So far, however, there has been no quick or accurate method of assessing the oxygen conditions in individual microdroplets. This key obstacle has been overcome at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Not in rows of large industrial tanks, nor on shelves laden with test tubes and beakers. The future of chemistry and biology is barely visible to the eye: it’s hundreds and thousands of microdroplets, whizzing through thin tubules of microfluidic devices. The race is on to find technologies that will make it possible to carry out controlled chemical and biological experiments in microdroplets. At the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) in Warsaw a method of remote, yet rapid and accurate assessment of oxygen consumption by micro-organisms living in individual microdroplets has been demonstrated for the first time.

“Devices for the cultivation of bacteria in microdroplets have the chance to revolutionize work on the development of new antibiotics and the study of mechanisms responsible for the acquisition of drug resistance by bacteria. In one small microfluidic system it is possible to accommodate several hundred or even several thousand microdroplets – and to carry out a different experiment in each of them, for example with different types of microorganisms and at different concentrations of antibiotic in each drop,” describes Prof. Piotr Garstecki (IPC PAS), then explains: “For such studies to be possible, one has to provide the bacteria with conditions for development for even a few weeks. Thus, knowledge about the flow of oxygen to the droplets and the rate of its consumption by the microorganisms becomes extremely important. In our latest system we demonstrate how to read this key information.”

A Jan. 11, 2017 IPC PAS press release on EurekAlert, which originated the  news item, describes the work in more detail,

The bioreactors of the future are water droplets with culture medium suspended in a carrier liquid with which they are immiscible (usually this is oil). In the channel of the microfluidic device each droplet is longer than it is wide and it almost completely fills its lumen; sizes matched in this manner ensure that the drops do not swop places in the channel and throughout the duration of the experiment they can be identified without any problems. At the same time, there has to be a thin layer of oil maintained continuously between each microdroplet and the wall of the channel. Without this, the bacteria would be in direct contact with the walls of the channel so they would be able to settle on them and move from drop to drop. Unfortunately, when the microdroplet is stationary, with time it pushes out the oil separating it from the walls, laying it open to contamination. For this reason the drops must be kept in constant motion – even for weeks.

Growing bacteria need culture medium, and waste products need to be removed from their environment at an appropriate rate. Information about the bacterial oxygen consumption in individual droplets is therefore crucial to the operation of microbioreactors.

“It is immediately obvious where the problem lies. In each of the hundreds of moving droplets measurements need to be carried out at a frequency corresponding to the frequency of division of the bacteria or more, in practice at least once every 15 minutes. In addition, the measurement cannot cause any interference in the microdroplets,” says PhD student Michal Horka (IPC PAS), a co-author of the publication in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

Help was at hand for the Warsaw researchers from chemists from the Austrian Institute of Analytical Chemistry and Food Chemistry at the Graz University of Technology. They provided polymer nanoparticles with a phosphorescent dye, which after excitation emit light for longer the higher the concentration of oxygen in the surrounding solution (the nanoparticles underwent tests at the IPC PAS on bacteria in order to determine their possible toxicity – none was found).

Research on monitoring oxygen consumption in the droplets commenced with the preparation of an aqueous solution with the bacteria, the culture medium and a suitable quantity of nanoparticles. The mixture was injected into the microfluidic system constructed of tubing with Teflon connectors with correspondingly shaped channels. The first module formed droplets with a volume of approx. 4 microlitres, which were directed to the incubation tube wound on a spool. In the middle of its length there was another module, with detectors for measuring oxygen and absorbance.

“In the incubation part in one phase of the cycle the droplets flowed in one direction, in the second – in another, electronically controlled by means of suitable solenoid valves. All this looks seemingly simple enough, but in practice one of the biggest challenges was to ensure a smooth transition between the detection module and the tubing, so that bacterial contamination did not occur at the connections,” explains PhD student Horka.

During their passage through the detection module the droplets flowed under an optical sensor which measured the so-called optical density, which is the standard parameter used to evaluate the number of cells (the more bacteria in the droplets, the less light passes through them). In turn, the measurement of the duration of the phosphorescence of the nanoparticles, evaluating the concentration of oxygen in the microdroplets, was carried out using the Piccolo2 optical detector, provided by the Austrian group. This detector, which looks like a big pen drive, was connected directly to the USB port on the control computer. Comparing information from both sensors, IPC PAS researchers showed that the microfluidic device they had constructed made it possible to regularly and quickly monitor the metabolic activity of bacteria in the individual microdroplets.

“We carried out our tests both with bacteria floating in water singly – this is how the common Escherichia coli bacteria behave – as well as with those having a tendency to stick together in clumps – as is the case for tuberculosis bacilli or others belonging to the same family including Mycobacterium smegmatis which we studied. Evaluation of the rate of oxygen consumption by both species of microorganisms proved to be not only possible, but also reliable,” stresses PhD student Artur Ruszczak (IPC PAS).

The results of the research, funded by the European ERC Starting Grant (Polish side) and the Maria Sklodowska-Curie grant (Austrian side) are an important step in the process of building fully functional microfluidic devices for conducting biological experiments lasting many weeks. A system for culturing bacteria in microdroplets was developed at the IPC PAS a few years ago, however it was constructed on a polycarbonate plate. The maximum dimensions of the plate did not exceed 10 cm, which greatly limited the number of droplets; in addition, as a result of interaction with the polycarbonate, after four days the channels were contaminated with bacteria. Devices of Teflon modules and tubing would not have these disadvantages, and would be suitable for practical applications.

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

Lifetime of Phosphorescence from Nanoparticles Yields Accurate Measurement of Concentration of Oxygen in Microdroplets, Allowing One To Monitor the Metabolism of Bacteria by Michał Horka, Shiwen Sun, Artur Ruszczak, Piotr Garstecki, and Torsten Mayr. Anal. Chem., 2016, 88 (24), pp 12006–12012 DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.6b03758 Publication Date (Web): November 23, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Curcumin: a scientific literature review concludes health benefits may be overstated

Given the number of times I’ve featured ‘curcumin research’, it seems only right to include this latest work. A Jan. 11, 2017 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert) describes the results of a review of the scientific literature on curcumin’s (a constituent of turmeric) medicinal effectiveness,

Curcumin, a compound in turmeric, continues to be hailed as a natural treatment for a wide range of health conditions, including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. But a new review of the scientific literature on curcumin has found it’s probably not all it’s ground up to be. The report in ACS’ Journal of Medicinal Chemistry instead cites evidence that, contrary to numerous reports, the compound has limited — if any — therapeutic benefit.

Turmeric, a spice often added to curries and mustards because of its distinct flavor and color, has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. Since the early 1990’s, scientists have zeroed in on curcumin, which makes up about 3 to 5 percent of turmeric, as the potential constituent that might give turmeric its health-boosting properties. More than 120 clinical trials to test these claims have been or are in the process of being run by clinical investigators. To get to the root of curcumin’s essential medicinal chemistry, the research groups of Michael A. Walters and Guido F. Pauli teamed up to extract key findings from thousands of scientific articles on the topic.

The researchers’ review of the vast curcumin literature provides evidence that curcumin is unstable under physiological conditions and not readily absorbed by the body, properties that make it a poor therapeutic candidate. Additionally, they could find no evidence of a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial on curcumin to support its status as a potential cure-all. But, the authors say, this doesn’t necessarily mean research on turmeric should halt [emphasis mine]. Turmeric extracts and preparations could have health benefits, although probably not for the number of conditions currently touted. The researchers suggest that future studies should take a more holistic approach to account for the spice’s chemically diverse constituents that may synergistically contribute to its potential benefits.

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

The Essential Medicinal Chemistry of Curcumin by Kathryn M. Nelson, Jayme L. Dahlin, Jonathan Bisson, James Graham, Guido F. Pauli, and Michael A. Walters. J. Med. Chem., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.jmedchem.6b00975 Publication Date (Web): January 11, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access.

Developing cortical implants for future speech neural prostheses

I’m guessing that graphene will feature in these proposed cortical implants since the project leader is a member of the Graphene Flagship’s Biomedical Technologies Work Package. (For those who don’t know, the Graphene Flagship is one of two major funding initiatives each receiving funding of 1B Euros over 10 years from the European Commission as part of their FET [Future and Emerging Technologies)] Initiative.)  A Jan. 12, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces the new project (Note: A link has been removed),

BrainCom is a FET Proactive project, funded by the European Commission with 8.35M€ [8.3 million Euros] for the next 5 years, holding its Kick-off meeting on January 12-13 at ICN2 (Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology) and the UAB [ Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona]. This project, coordinated by ICREA [Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies] Research Prof. Jose A. Garrido from ICN2, will permit significant advances in understanding of cortical speech networks and the development of speech rehabilitation solutions using innovative brain-computer interfaces.

A Jan. 12, 2017 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item expands on the theme (it is a bit repetitive),

More than 5 million people worldwide suffer annually from aphasia, an extremely invalidating condition in which patients lose the ability to comprehend and formulate language after brain damage or in the course of neurodegenerative disorders. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), enabled by forefront technologies and materials, are a promising approach to treat patients with aphasia. The principle of BCIs is to collect neural activity at its source and decode it by means of electrodes implanted directly in the brain. However, neurorehabilitation of higher cognitive functions such as language raises serious issues. The current challenge is to design neural implants that cover sufficiently large areas of the brain to allow for reliable decoding of detailed neuronal activity distributed in various brain regions that are key for language processing.

BrainCom is a FET Proactive project funded by the European Commission with 8.35M€ for the next 5 years. This interdisciplinary initiative involves 10 partners including technologists, engineers, biologists, clinicians, and ethics experts. They aim to develop a new generation of neuroprosthetic cortical devices enabling large-scale recordings and stimulation of cortical activity to study high level cognitive functions. Ultimately, the BraimCom project will seed a novel line of knowledge and technologies aimed at developing the future generation of speech neural prostheses. It will cover different levels of the value chain: from technology and engineering to basic and language neuroscience, and from preclinical research in animals to clinical studies in humans.

This recently funded project is coordinated by ICREA Prof. Jose A. Garrido, Group Leader of the Advanced Electronic Materials and Devices Group at the Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – ICN2) and deputy leader of the Biomedical Technologies Work Package presented last year in Barcelona by the Graphene Flagship. The BrainCom Kick-Off meeting is held on January 12-13 at ICN2 and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB).

Recent developments show that it is possible to record cortical signals from a small region of the motor cortex and decode them to allow tetraplegic [also known as, quadriplegic] people to activate a robotic arm to perform everyday life actions. Brain-computer interfaces have also been successfully used to help tetraplegic patients unable to speak to communicate their thoughts by selecting letters on a computer screen using non-invasive electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings. The performance of such technologies can be dramatically increased using more detailed cortical neural information.

BrainCom project proposes a radically new electrocorticography technology taking advantage of unique mechanical and electrical properties of novel nanomaterials such as graphene, 2D materials and organic semiconductors.  The consortium members will fabricate ultra-flexible cortical and intracortical implants, which will be placed right on the surface of the brain, enabling high density recording and stimulation sites over a large area. This approach will allow the parallel stimulation and decoding of cortical activity with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution.

These technologies will help to advance the basic understanding of cortical speech networks and to develop rehabilitation solutions to restore speech using innovative brain-computer paradigms. The technology innovations developed in the project will also find applications in the study of other high cognitive functions of the brain such as learning and memory, as well as other clinical applications such as epilepsy monitoring.

The BrainCom project Consortium members are:

  • Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) – Spain (Coordinator)
  • Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona (CNM-IMB-CSIC) – Spain
  • University Grenoble Alpes – France
  • ARMINES/ Ecole des Mines de St. Etienne – France
  • Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Grenoble – France
  • Multichannel Systems – Germany
  • University of Geneva – Switzerland
  • University of Oxford – United Kingdom
  • Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München – Germany
  • Wavestone – Luxembourg

There doesn’t seem to be a website for the project but there is a BrainCom webpage on the European Commission’s CORDIS (Community Research and Development Information Service) website.

‘Smart’ fabric that’s bony

Researchers at Australia’s University of New South of Wales (UNSW) have devised a means of ‘weaving’ a material that mimics the bone tissue, periosteum according to a Jan. 11, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

For the first time, UNSW [University of New South Wales] biomedical engineers have woven a ‘smart’ fabric that mimics the sophisticated and complex properties of one nature’s ingenious materials, the bone tissue periosteum.

Having achieved proof of concept, the researchers are now ready to produce fabric prototypes for a range of advanced functional materials that could transform the medical, safety and transport sectors. Patents for the innovation are pending in Australia, the United States and Europe.

Potential future applications range from protective suits that stiffen under high impact for skiers, racing-car drivers and astronauts, through to ‘intelligent’ compression bandages for deep-vein thrombosis that respond to the wearer’s movement and safer steel-belt radial tyres.

A Jan. 11, 2017 UNSW press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Many animal and plant tissues exhibit ‘smart’ and adaptive properties. One such material is the periosteum, a soft tissue sleeve that envelops most bony surfaces in the body. The complex arrangement of collagen, elastin and other structural proteins gives periosteum amazing resilience and provides bones with added strength under high impact loads.

Until now, a lack of scalable ‘bottom-up’ approaches by researchers has stymied their ability to use smart tissues to create advanced functional materials.

UNSW’s Paul Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering, Professor Melissa Knothe Tate, said her team had for the first time mapped the complex tissue architectures of the periosteum, visualised them in 3D on a computer, scaled up the key components and produced prototypes using weaving loom technology.

“The result is a series of textile swatch prototypes that mimic periosteum’s smart stress-strain properties. We have also demonstrated the feasibility of using this technique to test other fibres to produce a whole range of new textiles,” Professor Knothe Tate said.

In order to understand the functional capacity of the periosteum, the team used an incredibly high fidelity imaging system to investigate and map its architecture.

“We then tested the feasibility of rendering periosteum’s natural tissue weaves using computer-aided design software,” Professor Knothe Tate said.

The computer modelling allowed the researchers to scale up nature’s architectural patterns to weave periosteum-inspired, multidimensional fabrics using a state-of-the-art computer-controlled jacquard loom. The loom is known as the original rudimentary computer, first unveiled in 1801.

“The challenge with using collagen and elastin is their fibres, that are too small to fit into the loom. So we used elastic material that mimics elastin and silk that mimics collagen,” Professor Knothe Tate said.

In a first test of the scaled-up tissue weaving concept, a series of textile swatch prototypes were woven, using specific combinations of collagen and elastin in a twill pattern designed to mirror periosteum’s weave. Mechanical testing of the swatches showed they exhibited similar properties found in periosteum’s natural collagen and elastin weave.

First author and biomedical engineering PhD candidate, Joanna Ng, said the technique had significant implications for the development of next-generation advanced materials and mechanically functional textiles.

While the materials produced by the jacquard loom have potential manufacturing applications – one tyremaker believes a titanium weave could spawn a new generation of thinner, stronger and safer steel-belt radials – the UNSW team is ultimately focused on the machine’s human potential.

“Our longer term goal is to weave biological tissues – essentially human body parts – in the lab to replace and repair our failing joints that reflect the biology, architecture and mechanical properties of the periosteum,” Ms Ng said.

An NHMRC development grant received in November [2016] will allow the team to take its research to the next phase. The researchers will work with the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Sydney’s Professor Tony Weiss to develop and commercialise prototype bone implants for pre-clinical research, using the ‘smart’ technology, within three years.

In searching for more information about this work, I found a Winter 2015 article (PDF; pp. 8-11) by Amy Coopes and Steve Offner for UNSW Magazine about Knothe Tate and her work (Note: In Australia, winter would be what we in the Northern Hemisphere consider summer),

Tucked away in a small room in UNSW’s Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering sits a 19th century–era weaver’s wooden loom. Operated by punch cards and hooks, the machine was the first rudimentary computer when it was unveiled in 1801. While on the surface it looks like a standard Jacquard loom, it has been enhanced with motherboards integrated into each of the loom’s five hook modules and connected to a computer. This state-of-the-art technology means complex algorithms control each of the 5,000 feed-in fibres with incredible precision.

That capacity means the loom can weave with an extraordinary variety of substances, from glass and titanium to rayon and silk, a development that has attracted industry attention around the world.

The interest lies in the natural advantage woven materials have over other manufactured substances. Instead of manipulating material to create new shades or hues as in traditional weaving, the fabrics’ mechanical properties can be modulated, to be stiff at one end, for example, and more flexible at the other.

“Instead of a pattern of colours we get a pattern of mechanical properties,” says Melissa Knothe Tate, UNSW’s Paul Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering. “Think of a rope; it’s uniquely good in tension and in bending. Weaving is naturally strong in that way.”

The interface of mechanics and physiology is the focus of Knothe Tate’s work. In March [2015], she travelled to the United States to present another aspect of her work at a meeting of the international Orthopedic Research Society in Las Vegas. That project – which has been dubbed “Google Maps for the body” – explores the interaction between cells and their environment in osteoporosis and other degenerative musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Using previously top-secret semiconductor technology developed by optics giant Zeiss, and the same approach used by Google Maps to locate users with pinpoint accuracy, Knothe Tate and her team have created “zoomable” anatomical maps from the scale of a human joint down to a single cell.

She has also spearheaded a groundbreaking partnership that includes the Cleveland Clinic, and Brown and Stanford universities to help crunch terabytes of data gathered from human hip studies – all processed with the Google technology. Analysis that once took 25 years can now be done in a matter of weeks, bringing researchers ever closer to a set of laws that govern biological behaviour. [p. 9]

I gather she was recruited from the US to work at the University of New South Wales and this article was to highlight why they recruited her and to promote the university’s biomedical engineering department, which she chairs.

Getting back to 2017, here’s a link to and citation for the paper,

Scale-up of nature’s tissue weaving algorithms to engineer advanced functional materials by Joanna L. Ng, Lillian E. Knothe, Renee M. Whan, Ulf Knothe & Melissa L. Knothe Tate. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 40396 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep40396 Published online: 11 January 2017

This paper is open access.

One final comment, that’s a lot of people (three out of five) with the last name Knothe in the author’s list for the paper.

Eliminate cold storage for diagnostic tests?

There’s a nanoparticle coating that could eliminate the need for cold storage and/or refrigeration for diagnostic testing according to a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Many diagnostic tests use antibodies to help confirm a myriad of medical conditions, from Zika infections to heart ailments and even some forms of cancer. Antibodies capture and help detect proteins, enzymes, bacteria and viruses present in injuries and illnesses, and must be kept at a constant low temperature to ensure their viability — often requiring refrigeration powered by electricity. This can make diagnostic testing in underdeveloped countries, disaster or remote areas and even war zones extremely expensive and difficult.

A team of engineers from Washington University in St. Louis and Air Force Research Laboratory have discovered an inexpensive work-around: a protective coating that could completely eliminate the need for cold storage and change the scope of medical diagnostic testing in places where it’s often needed the most.

“In many developing countries, electricity is not guaranteed,” said Srikanth Singamaneni, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science in Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis.

“So how do we best get them medical diagnostics? We did not know how to solve this problem previously.”

A Jan. 4, 2016 Washington University in St. Louis news release by Erika Ebsworth-Goold, which originated the news item, describes how previous research helped lead to a solution,

Singamaneni’s team previously used tiny gold nanorods in bio-diagnostic research, measuring changes in their optical properties to quantify protein concentrations in bio-fluids: the higher a concentration, the higher the likelihood of injury or disease.

In this new research, published in Advanced Materials, Singamaneni worked with faculty from Washington University’s School of Medicine and researchers from the Air Force Research Lab to grow metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) around antibodies attached to gold nanorods. The crystalline MOFs formed a protective layer around the antibodies and prevented them from losing activity at elevated temperatures. The protective effect lasted for a week even when the samples were stored at 60°C.

“This technology would allow point-of-care screening for biomarkers of diseases in urban and rural clinic settings where immediate patient follow-up is critical to treatment and wellbeing,” said Dr. Jeremiah J. Morrissey, professor of anesthesiology, Division of Clinical and Translational Research, Washington University School of Medicine and a co-author on the paper.

“On the spot testing eliminates the time lag in sending blood/urine samples to a central lab for testing and in tracking down patients to discuss test results. In addition, it may reduce costs associated with refrigerated shipping and storage.”

The protective MOF layer can be quickly and easily removed from the antibodies with a simple rinse of slightly acidic water, making a diagnostic strip or paper immediately ready to use. Singamaneni says this proof of concept research is now ready to be tested for clinical samples.

“As long as you are using antibodies, you can use this technology,” said Congzhou Wang, a postdoctoral researcher in Singamaneni’s lab and the paper’s lead author. “In bio-diagnostics from here on out, we will no longer need refrigeration.”

“The MOF-based protection of antibodies on sensor surfaces is ideal for preserving biorecognition abilities of sensors that are designed for deployment in the battlefield,” said Dr. Rajesh R. Naik, 711th Human Performance Wing of the Air Force Research Laboratory, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and a co-corresponding author of the paper.  “It provides remarkable stability and extremely easy to remove right before use.”

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

Metal-Organic Framework as a Protective Coating for Biodiagnostic Chips by Congzhou Wang, Sirimuvva Tadepalli, Jingyi Luan, Keng-Ku Liu, Jeremiah J. Morrissey, Evan D. Kharasch, Rajesh R. Naik, and Srikanth Singamaneni. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201604433 Version of Record online: 7 DEC 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

A final observation, there’s at least one other project aimed at eliminating the need for refrigeration in the field of medical applications and that’s the nanopatch, a replacement for syringes used for liquid medications and vaccines (see my Dec. 16, 2016 posting for a description).