Attomolar cancer detection: measuring microRNAs in blood

The latest research does not lead to a magical disease detector where nanoscale sensors swim through the body continuously monitoring our health and alerting us should something untoward occur (see this Oct. 28, 2014 article on for more about Google X’s development plans for it and this Nov. 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk for a measured response from a researcher in the field).

Now onto some real research, a Nov. 17, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily announces an ultrasensitive (attoscale) sensor employing gold nanoparticles for detecting cancer,

A simple, ultrasensitive microRNA sensor developed and tested by researchers from the schools of science and medicine at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center holds promise for the design of new diagnostic strategies and, potentially, for the prognosis and treatment of pancreatic and other cancers.

A Nov. 17, 2015 Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail about research that seems to have focused largely on pancreatic cancer detection (Note: Links have been removed),

In a study published in the Nov. [2015] issue of ACS Nano, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society focusing on nanoscience and nanotechnology research, the IUPUI researchers describe their design of the novel, low-cost, nanotechnology-enabled reusable sensor. They also report on the promising results of tests of the sensor’s ability to identify pancreatic cancer or indicate the existence of a benign condition by quantifying changes in levels of microRNA signatures linked to pancreatic cancer. MicroRNAs are small molecules of RNA that regulate how larger RNA molecules lead to protein expression. As such, microRNAs are very important in biology and disease states.

“We used the fundamental concepts of nanotechnology to design the sensor to detect and quantify biomolecules at very low concentrations,” said Rajesh Sardar, Ph.D., who developed the sensor.

“We have designed an ultrasensitive technique so that we can see minute changes in microRNA concentrations in a patient’s blood and confirm the presence of pancreatic cancer.” Sardar is an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the School of Science at IUPUI and leads an interdisciplinary research program focusing on the intersection of analytical chemistry and the nanoscience of metallic nanoparticles.

“If we can establish that there is cancer in the pancreas because the sensor detects high levels of microRNA-10b or one of the other microRNAs associated with that specific cancer, we may be able to treat it sooner,” said Murray Korc, M.D., the Myles Brand Professor of Cancer Research at the IU School of Medicine and a researcher at the IU Simon Cancer Center. Korc, worked with Sardar to improve the sensor’s capabilities and led the testing of the sensor and its clinical uses as well as advancing the understanding of pancreatic cancer biology.

“That’s especially significant for pancreatic cancer, because for many patients it is symptom-free for years or even a decade or more, by which time it has spread to other organs, when surgical removal is no longer possible and therapeutic options are limited,” said Korc. “For example, diagnosis of pancreatic cancer at an early stage of the disease followed by surgical removal is associated with a 40 percent five-year survival. Diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer, by contrast, is associated with life expectancy that is often only a year or less.

“The beauty of the sensor designed by Dr. Sardar is its ability to accurately detect mild increases in microRNA levels, which could allow for early cancer diagnosis,” Korc added.

Over the past decade, studies have shown that microRNAs play important roles in cancer and other diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disorders. The new IUPUI nanotechnology-based sensor can detect changes in any of these microRNAs.

The sensor is a small glass chip that contains triangular-shaped gold nanoparticles called ‘nanoprisms.’ After dipping it in a sample of blood or another body fluid, the scientist measures the change in the nanoprism’s optical property to determine the levels of specific microRNAs.

For anyone concerned about the cost associated with creating sensors based on gold, about patents, or about current techniques for monitoring microRNAs, there’s more from the news release (Note: A link has been removed),

“Using gold nanoprisms may sound expensive, but it isn’t because these particles are so very tiny,” Sardar said. “It’s a rather cheap technique because it uses nanotechnology and needs very little gold. $250 worth of gold makes 4,000 sensors. Four thousand sensors allow you to do at least 4,000 tests. The low cost makes this technique ideal for use anywhere, including in low-resource environments in this country and around the world.”

Indiana University Research and Technology Corporation has filed a patent application on Sardar’s and Korc’s groundbreaking nanotechnology-enabled sensor. The researchers’ ultimate goal is to design ultrasensitive and extremely selective low-cost point-of-care diagnostics enabling individual therapeutic approaches to diseases.

Currently, polymerase chain reaction technology is used to determine microRNA signatures, which requires extraction of the microRNA from blood or other biological fluid and reverse transcription or amplification of the microRNA. PCR provides relative values. By contrast, the process developed at IUPUI is simpler, quantitative, more sensitive and highly specific even when two different microRNAs vary in a single position. The study demonstrated that the IUPUI nanotechnology-enabled sensor is as good as if not better than the most advanced PCR in detection and quantification of microRNA.

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

Label-Free Nanoplasmonic-Based Short Noncoding RNA Sensing at Attomolar Concentrations Allows for Quantitative and Highly Specific Assay of MicroRNA-10b in Biological Fluids and Circulating Exosomes by Gayatri K. Joshi, Samantha Deitz-McElyea, Thakshila Liyanage, Katie Lawrence, Sonali Mali, Rajesh Sardar*, and Murray Korc. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b04527 Publication Date (Web): October 7, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This is an open access paper.

The researchers have provided this illustration of gold nanoprisms,

Caption: Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis researchers have developed a novel, low-cost, nanotechnology-enabled reusable sensor for which a patent application has been filed. Credit: Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, School of Science, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Caption: Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis researchers have developed a novel, low-cost, nanotechnology-enabled reusable sensor for which a patent application has been filed. Credit: Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, School of Science, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) will lead an Ideas Lab at 2016 World Economic Forum

The theme for the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) is ‘Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. I’m losing track of how many industrial revolutions we’ve had and this seems like a vague theme. However, there is enlightenment to be had in this Nov. 17, 2015 Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) news release on EurekAlert,

KAIST researchers will lead an IdeasLab on biotechnology for an aging society while HUBO, the winner of the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, will interact with the forum participants, offering an experience of state-of-the-art robotics technology

Moving on from the news release’s subtitle, there’s more enlightenment,

Representatives from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) will attend the 2016 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum to run an IdeasLab and showcase its humanoid robot.

With over 2,500 leaders from business, government, international organizations, civil society, academia, media, and the arts expected to participate, the 2016 Annual Meeting will take place on Jan. 20-23, 2016 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. Under the theme of ‘Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ [emphasis mine] global leaders will discuss the period of digital transformation [emphasis mine] that will have profound effects on economies, societies, and human behavior.

President Sung-Mo Steve Kang of KAIST will join the Global University Leaders Forum (GULF), a high-level academic meeting to foster collaboration among experts on issues of global concern for the future of higher education and the role of science in society. He will discuss how the emerging revolution in technology will affect the way universities operate and serve society. KAIST is the only Korean university participating in GULF, which is composed of prestigious universities invited from around the world.

Four KAIST professors, including Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, will lead an IdeasLab on ‘Biotechnology for an Aging Society.’

Professor Lee said, “In recent decades, much attention has been paid to the potential effect of the growth of an aging population and problems posed by it. At our IdeasLab, we will introduce some of our research breakthroughs in biotechnology to address the challenges of an aging society.”

In particular, he will present his latest research in systems biotechnology and metabolic engineering. His research has explained the mechanisms of how traditional Oriental medicine works in our bodies by identifying structural similarities between effective compounds in traditional medicine and human metabolites, and has proposed more effective treatments by employing such compounds.

KAIST will also display its networked mobile medical service system, ‘Dr. M.’ Built upon a ubiquitous and mobile Internet, such as the Internet of Things, wearable electronics, and smart homes and vehicles, Dr. M will provide patients with a more affordable and accessible healthcare service.

In addition, Professor Jun-Ho Oh of the Mechanical Engineering Department will showcase his humanoid robot, ‘HUBO,’ during the Annual Meeting. His research team won the International Humanoid Robotics Challenge hosted by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was held in Pomona, California, on June 5-6, 2015. With 24 international teams participating in the finals, HUBO completed all eight tasks in 44 minutes and 28 seconds, 6 minutes earlier than the runner-up, and almost 11 minutes earlier than the third-place team. Team KAIST walked away with the grand prize of USD 2 million.

Professor Oh said, “Robotics technology will grow exponentially in this century, becoming a real driving force to expedite the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I hope HUBO will offer an opportunity to learn about the current advances in robotics technology.”

President Kang pointed out, “KAIST has participated in the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum since 2011 and has engaged with a broad spectrum of global leaders through numerous presentations and demonstrations of our excellence in education and research. Next year, we will choreograph our first robotics exhibition on HUBO and present high-tech research results in biotechnology, which, I believe, epitomizes how science and technology breakthroughs in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will shape our future in an unprecedented way.”

Based on what I’m reading in the KAIST news release, I think the conversation about the ‘Fourth revolution’ may veer toward robotics and artificial intelligence (referred to in code as “digital transformation”) as developments in these fields are likely to affect various economies.  Before proceeding with that thought, take a look at this video showcasing HUBO at the DARPA challenge,

I’m quite impressed with how the robot can recalibrate its grasp so it can pick things up and plug an electrical cord into an outlet and knowing whether wheels or legs will be needed to complete a task all due to algorithms which give the robot a type of artificial intelligence. While it may seem more like a machine than anything else, there’s also this version of a HUBO,

Description English: Photo by David Hanson Date 26 October 2006 (original upload date) Source Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Mac. Author Dayofid at English Wikipedia

English: Photo by David Hanson
Date 26 October 2006 (original upload date)
Source Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Mac.
Author Dayofid at English Wikipedia

It’ll be interesting to note if the researchers make the HUBO seem more humanoid by giving it a face for its interactions with WEF attendees. It would be more engaging but also more threatening since there is increasing concern over robots taking work away from humans with implications for various economies. There’s more about HUBO in its Wikipedia entry.

As for the IdeasLab, that’s been in place at the WEF since 2009 according to this WEF July 19, 2011 news release announcing an ideasLab hub (Note: A link has been removed),

The World Economic Forum is publicly launching its biannual interactive IdeasLab hub on 19 July [2011] at 10.00 CEST. The unique IdeasLab hub features short documentary-style, high-definition (HD) videos of preeminent 21st century ideas and critical insights. The hub also provides dynamic Pecha Kucha presentations and visual IdeaScribes that trace and package complex strategic thinking into engaging and powerful images. All videos are HD broadcast quality.

To share the knowledge captured by the IdeasLab sessions, which have been running since 2009, the Forum is publishing 23 of the latest sessions, seen as the global benchmark of collaborative learning and development.

So while you might not be able to visit an IdeasLab presentation at the WEF meetings, you could get a it to see them later.

Getting back to the robotics and artificial intelligence aspect of the 2016 WEF’s ‘digital’ theme, I noticed some reluctance to discuss how the field of robotics is affecting work and jobs in a broadcast of Canadian television show, ‘Conversations with Conrad’.

For those unfamiliar with the interviewer, Conrad Black is somewhat infamous in Canada for a number of reasons (from the Conrad Black Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed,

Conrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, KSG (born 25 August 1944) is a Canadian-born British former newspaper publisher and author. He is a non-affiliated life peer, and a convicted felon in the United States for fraud.[n 1] Black controlled Hollinger International, once the world’s third-largest English-language newspaper empire,[3] which published The Daily Telegraph (UK), Chicago Sun Times (U.S.), The Jerusalem Post (Israel), National Post (Canada), and hundreds of community newspapers in North America, before he was fired by the board of Hollinger in 2004.[4]

In 2004, a shareholder-initiated prosecution of Black began in the United States. Over $80 million in assets claimed to have been improperly taken or inappropriately spent by Black.[5] He was convicted of three counts of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice in a U.S. court in 2007 and sentenced to six and a half years’ imprisonment. In 2011 two of the charges were overturned on appeal and he was re-sentenced to 42 months in prison on one count of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice.[6] Black was released on 4 May 2012.[7]

Despite or perhaps because of his chequered past, he is often a good interviewer and he definitely attracts interesting guests. n an Oct. 26, 2015 programme, he interviewed both former Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, and Canadian-American David Frum who’s currently editor of Atlantic Monthly and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.

It was Black’s conversation with Frum which surprised me. They discuss robotics without ever once using the word. In a section where Frum notes that manufacturing is returning to the US, he also notes that it doesn’t mean more jobs and cites a newly commissioned plant in the eastern US employing about 40 people where before it would have employed hundreds or thousands. Unfortunately, the video has not been made available as I write this (Nov. 20, 2015) but that situation may change. You can check here.

Final thought, my guess is that economic conditions are fragile and I don’t think anyone wants to set off panic by mentioning robotics and disappearing jobs.

What do nanocrystals have in common with the earth’s crust?

The deformation properties of nanocrystals resemble those in the earth’s crust according to a Nov. 17, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Apparently, size doesn’t always matter. An extensive study by an interdisciplinary research group suggests that the deformation properties of nanocrystals are not much different from those of the Earth’s crust.

“When solid materials such as nanocrystals, bulk metallic glasses, rocks, or granular materials are slowly deformed by compression or shear, they slip intermittently with slip-avalanches similar to earthquakes,” explained Karin Dahmen, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Typically these systems are studied separately. But we found that the scaling behavior of their slip statistics agree across a surprisingly wide range of different length scales and material structures.”

There’s an illustration accompanying the research,

Courtesy of the University of Illinois

Caption: When solid materials such as nanocrystals, bulk metallic glasses, rocks, or granular materials are slowly deformed by compression or shear, they slip intermittently with slip-avalanches similar to earthquakes. Credit: University of Illinois

A Nov. 17, 2015 University of Illinois news release (also on EurekAlert) by Rick Kubetz, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Identifying agreement in aspects of the slip statistics is important, because it enables us to transfer results from one scale to another, from one material to another, from one stress to another, or from one strain rate to another,” stated Shivesh Pathak, a physics undergraduate at Illinois, and a co-author of the paper, “Universal Quake Statistics: From Compressed Nanocrystals to Earthquakes,” appearing in Scientific Reports. “The study shows how to identify and explain commonalities in the deformation mechanisms of different materials on different scales.

“The results provide new tools and methods to use the slip statistics to predict future materials deformation,” added Michael LeBlanc, a physics graduate student and co-author of the paper. “They also clarify which system parameters significantly affect the deformation behavior on long length scales. We expect the results to be useful for applications in materials testing, failure prediction, and hazard prevention.”

Researchers representing a broad a range of disciplines–including physics, geosciences, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and materials science–from the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands contributed to the study, comparing five different experimental systems, on several different scales, with model predictions.

As a solid is sheared, each weak spot is stuck until the local shear stress exceeds a random failure threshold. It then slips by a random amount until it re-sticks. The released stress is redistributed to all other weak spots. Thus, a slipping weak spot can trigger other spots to fail in a slip avalanche.

Using tools from the theory of phase transitions, such as the renormalization group, one can show that the slip statistics of the model do not depend on the details of the system.

“Although these systems span 13 decades in length scale, they all show the same scaling behavior for their slip size distributions and other statistical properties,” stated Pathak. “Their size distributions follow the same simple (power law) function, multiplied with the same exponential cutoff.”

The cutoff, which is the largest slip or earthquake size, grows with applied force for materials spanning length scales from nanometers to kilometers. The dependence of the size of the largest slip or quake on stress reflects “tuned critical” behavior, rather than so-called self-organized criticality, which would imply stress-independence.

“The agreement of the scaling properties of the slip statistics across scales does not imply the predictability of individual slips or earthquakes,” LeBlanc said. “Rather, it implies that we can predict the scaling behavior of average properties of the slip statistics and the probability of slips of a certain size, including their dependence on stress and strain-rate.”

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

Universal Quake Statistics: From Compressed Nanocrystals to Earthquakes by Jonathan T. Uhl, Shivesh Pathak, Danijel Schorlemmer, Xin Liu, Ryan Swindeman, Braden A. W. Brinkman, Michael LeBlanc, Georgios Tsekenis, Nir Friedman, Robert Behringer, Dmitry Denisov, Peter Schall, Xiaojun Gu, Wendelin J. Wright, Todd Hufnagel, Andrew Jennings, Julia R. Greer, P. K. Liaw, Thorsten Becker, Georg Dresen, & Karin A. Dahmen.  Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 16493 (2015)  doi:10.1038/srep16493 Published online: 17 November 2015

This is an open access paper.

One final comment, this story reminds me of a few other pieces of research featured here, which focus on repeating patterns in nature. The research was mentioned in an Aug. 27, 2015 posting about white dwarf stars and heartbeats and in an April 14, 2015 posting about gold nanoparticles and their resemblance to the Milky Way. You can also find more in the Wikipedia entry titled ‘Patterns in nature‘.

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) on climate change and rise of complex life on Nov. 24, 2015 and Member of Parliament Joyce Murray’s Paris Climate Conference breakfast meeting

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015 at 7:30 pm in the back room of The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.]), Café Scientifique will be hosting a talk about climate change and the rise of complex life (from the Nov. 12, 2015 announcement),

Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Mark Jellinek.  The title of his talk is:

The Formation and Breakup of Earth’s Supercontinents and the Remarkable Link to Earth’s Climate and the Rise of Complex Life

Earth history is marked by the intermittent formation and breakup of “supercontinents”, where all the land mass is organized much like a completed jigsaw puzzle centered at the equator or pole of the planet. Such events disrupt the mantle convective motions that cool our planet, affecting the volcanic and weathering processes that maintain Earth’s remarkably hospitable climate, in turn. In this talk I will explore how the last two supercontinental cycles impelled Earth into profoundly different climate extreme’s: a ~150 million year long cold period involving protracted global glaciations beginning about 800 million years ago and a ~100 million year long period of extreme warming beginning about 170 million years ago. One of the most provocative features of the last period of global glaciation is the rapid emergence of complex, multicellular animals about 650 million years ago. Why global glaciation might stimulate such an evolutionary bifurcation is, however, unclear. Predictable environmental stresses related to effects of the formation and breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia on ocean chemistry and Earth’s surface climate may play a crucial and unexpected role that I will discuss.

A professor in the Dept. of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Jellinek’s research interests include Volcanology, Geodynamics, Planetary Science, Geological Fluid Mechanics. You can find out more about Dr. Jellinek and his work here.

Joyce Murray and the Paris Climate Conference (sold out)

Joyce Murray is a Canadian Member of Parliament, (Liberal) for the riding of Vancouver Quadra who hosts a regular breakfast meeting where topics of interest (child care, seniors, transportation, the arts, big data, etc.) are discussed. From a Nov. 13, 2015 email announcement,

You are invited to our first post-election Vancouver Quadra MP Breakfast Connections on November 27th at Enigma Restaurant, for a discussion with Dr. Mark Jaccard on why the heat will be on world leaders in Paris, in the days leading to December 12th,  at the Paris Climate Conference (COP 21).

After 20 years of UN negotiations, the world expects a legally binding universal agreement on climate to keep temperature increases below 2°C! The climate heat will especially be on laggards like Canada and Australia’s new Prime Ministers. What might be expected of the Right Honorable Justin Trudeau and his provincial premiers? What are the possible outcomes of COP21?

Dr. Jaccard has worked with leadership in countries like China and the United States, and helped develop British Columbia’s innovative Climate Action Plan and Carbon Tax.

Join us for this unique opportunity to engage with a climate policy expert who has participated in this critical global journey. From the occasion of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit resulting in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), through the third Conference of Parties’ (COP3) Kyoto Protocol, to COP21 today, the building blocks for a binding international solution have been assembled. What’s still missing?

Mark has been a professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University since 1986 and is a global leader and consultant on structuring climate mitigation solutions. Former Chair and CEO of the British Columbia Utilities Commission, he has published over 100 academic papers, most of these related to his principal research focus: the design and application of energy-economy models that assess the effectiveness of sustainable energy and climate policies.

When: Friday November 27th 7:30 to 9:00AM

Where: Enigma Restaurant 4397 west 10th Avenue (at Trimble)

Cost: $20 includes a hot buffet breakfast; $10 for students (cash only please)

RSVP by emailing or call 604-664-9220


They’re not even taking names for a waiting list. You can find out more about Dr. Jaccard’s work here.

New tool for mapping neuronal connections in the brain

This work comes from the US Naval Research Laboratory according to a Nov. 17, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Research biologists, chemists and theoreticians at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), are on pace to develop the next generation of functional materials that could enable the mapping of the complex neural connections in the brain (“Electric Field Modulation of Semiconductor Quantum Dot Photoluminescence: Insights Into the Design of Robust Voltage-Sensitive Cellular Imaging Probes”). The ultimate goal is to better understand how the billions of neurons in the brain communicate with one another during normal brain function, or dysfunction, as result of injury or disease.

“There is tremendous interest in mapping all the neuron connections in the human brain,” said Dr. James Delehanty, research biologist, Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. “To do that we need new tools or materials that allow us to see how large groups of neurons communicate with one another while, at the same time, being able to focus in on a single neuron’s activity. Our most recent work potentially opens the integration of voltage-sensitive nanomaterials into live cells and tissues in a variety of configurations to achieve real-time imaging capabilities not currently possible.”

A Nov. 17, 2015 US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more details,

The basis of neuron communication is the time-dependent modulation of the strength of the electric field that is maintained across the cell’s plasma membrane. This is called an action potential. Among the nanomaterials under consideration for application in neuronal action potential imaging are quantum dots (QDs) — crystalline semiconductor nanomaterials possessing a number of advantageous photophysical attributes.

“QDs are very bright and photostable so you can look at them for long times and they allow for tissue imaging configurations that are not compatible with current materials, for example, organic dyes,” Delehanty added. “Equally important, we’ve shown here that QD brightness tracks, with very high fidelity, the time-resolved electric field strength changes that occur when a neuron undergoes an action potential. Their nanoscale size make them ideal nanoscale voltage sensing materials for interfacing with neurons and other electrically active cells for voltage sensing.”

QDs are small, bright, photo-stable materials that possess nanosecond fluorescence lifetimes. They can be localized within or on cellular plasma membranes and have low cytotoxicity when interfaced with experimental brain systems. Additionally, QDs possess two-photon action cross-section orders of magnitude larger than organic dyes or fluorescent proteins. Two-photon imaging is the preferred imaging modality for imaging deep (millimeters) into the brain and other tissues of the body.

In their most recent work, the NRL researchers showed that an electric field typical of those found in neuronal membranes results in suppression of the QD photoluminescence (PL) and, for the first time, that QD PL is able to track the action potential profile of a firing neuron with millisecond time resolution. This effect is shown to be connected with electric-field-driven QD ionization and consequent QD PL quenching, in contradiction with conventional wisdom that suppression of the QD PL is attributable to the quantum confined Stark effect — the shifting and splitting of spectral lines of atoms and molecules due to presence of an external electric field.

“The inherent superior photostability properties of QDs coupled with their voltage sensitivity could prove advantageous to long-term imaging capabilities that are not currently attainable using traditional organic voltage sensitive dyes,” Delehanty said. “We anticipate that continued research will facilitate the rational design and synthesis of voltage-sensitive QD probes that can be integrated in a variety of imaging configurations for the robust functional imaging and sensing of electrically active cells.”

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

Electric Field Modulation of Semiconductor Quantum Dot Photoluminescence: Insights Into the Design of Robust Voltage-Sensitive Cellular Imaging Probes by Clare E. Rowland, Kimihiro Susumu, Michael H. Stewart, Eunkeu Oh, Antti J. Mäkinen, Thomas J. O’Shaughnessy, Gary Kushto, Mason A. Wolak, Jeffrey S. Erickson, Alexander L. Efros, Alan L. Huston, and James B. Delehanty. Nano Lett., 2015, 15 (10), pp 6848–6854 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b02725 Publication Date (Web): September 28, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Lockheed Martin upgrades to 1000+ Qubit D-Wave system

D-Wave Systems, a Canadian quantum computing company, seems to be making new business announcements on a weekly basis. After last week’s US Los Alamos National Laboratory announcement (Nov. 12, 2015 posting) , there’s a Nov. 16, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Harris & Harris Group, Inc. (NASDAQ:TINY), an investor in transformative companies enabled by disruptive science, notes that its portfolio company, D-Wave Systems, Inc., announced that it has entered into a multi-year agreement with Lockheed Martin to upgrade the company’s 512-qubit D-Wave Two™ quantum computer to the new D-Wave 2X™ system with 1,000+ qubits.

A Nov. 16, 2015 D-Wave Systems news release provides more details about the deal,

D-Wave Systems Inc., the world’s first quantum computing company, today announced that it has entered into a multi-year agreement with Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) to upgrade the company’s 512-qubit D-Wave Two™ quantum computer to the new D-Wave 2X™ system with 1,000+ qubits. This represents the second system upgrade since Lockheed Martin became D-Wave’s first customer in 2011 with the purchase of a 128 qubit D-Wave One™ system. The agreement includes the system, maintenance and associated professional services.

“Our mission is to solve complex challenges, advance scientific discovery and deliver innovative solutions to our customers, which requires expertise in the most advanced technologies,” said Greg Tallant, Lockheed Martin fellow and lead for the University of Southern California-Lockheed Martin Quantum Computation Center (QCC). “Through our continued investment in D-Wave technology, we are able to push the boundaries of quantum computing and apply the latest technologies to address the real-world problems being faced by our customers.”

For quantum computing, the performance gain over traditional computing is most evident in exceedingly complex computational problems. This could be in areas such as validating the performance of software or vehicle planning and scheduling. With the new D-Wave system, Lockheed Martin researchers will be able to explore solutions for significantly larger computational problems with improved accuracy and execution time.

The new system will be hosted at the University of Southern California-Lockheed Martin Quantum Computation Center, which first began exploring the power of quantum computing with the D-Wave One, the world’s first quantum computer.

The installation of the D-Wave 2X system will be completed in January 2016.

Who knows what next week will bring for D-Wave, which by the way is located in Vancouver, Canada or, more accurately, Burnaby?

A 244-atom submarine powered by light

James Tour lab researchers at Rice University announce in a Nov. 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Though they’re not quite ready for boarding a lá “Fantastic Voyage,” nanoscale submarines created at Rice University are proving themselves seaworthy.

Each of the single-molecule, 244-atom submersibles built in the Rice lab of chemist James Tour has a motor powered by ultraviolet light. With each full revolution, the motor’s tail-like propeller moves the sub forward 18 nanometers.
And with the motors running at more than a million RPM, that translates into speed. Though the sub’s top speed amounts to less than 1 inch per second, Tour said that’s a breakneck pace on the molecular scale.

“These are the fastest-moving molecules ever seen in solution,” he said.

Expressed in a different way, the researchers reported this month in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters that their light-driven nanosubmersibles show an “enhancement in diffusion” of 26 percent. That means the subs diffuse, or spread out, much faster than they already do due to Brownian motion, the random way particles spread in a solution.

While they can’t be steered yet, the study proves molecular motors are powerful enough to drive the sub-10-nanometer subs through solutions of moving molecules of about the same size.

“This is akin to a person walking across a basketball court with 1,000 people throwing basketballs at him,” Tour said.

A Nov. 16, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides context and details about the research,

Tour’s group has extensive experience with molecular machines. A decade ago, his lab introduced the world to nanocars, single-molecule cars with four wheels, axles and independent suspensions that could be “driven” across a surface.

Tour said many scientists have created microscopic machines with motors over the years, but most have either used or generated toxic chemicals. He said a motor that was conceived in the last decade by a group in the Netherlands proved suitable for Rice’s submersibles, which were produced in a 20-step chemical synthesis.

“These motors are well-known and used for different things,” said lead author and Rice graduate student Victor García-López. “But we were the first ones to propose they can be used to propel nanocars and now submersibles.”

The motors, which operate more like a bacteria’s flagellum than a propeller, complete each revolution in four steps. When excited by light, the double bond that holds the rotor to the body becomes a single bond, allowing it to rotate a quarter step. As the motor seeks to return to a lower energy state, it jumps adjacent atoms for another quarter turn. The process repeats as long as the light is on.

For comparison tests, the lab also made submersibles with no motors, slow motors and motors that paddle back and forth. All versions of the submersibles have pontoons that fluoresce red when excited by a laser, according to the researchers. (Yellow, sadly, was not an option.)

“One of the challenges was arming the motors with the appropriate fluorophores for tracking without altering the fast rotation,” García-López said.

Once built, the team turned to Gufeng Wang at North Carolina State University to measure how well the nanosubs moved.

“We had used scanning tunneling microscopy and fluorescence microscopy to watch our cars drive, but that wouldn’t work for the submersibles,” Tour said. “They would drift out of focus pretty quickly.”

The North Carolina team sandwiched a drop of diluted acetonitrile liquid containing a few nanosubs between two slides and used a custom confocal fluorescence microscope to hit it from opposite sides with both ultraviolet light (for the motor) and a red laser (for the pontoons).

The microscope’s laser defined a column of light in the solution within which tracking occurred, García-López said. “That way, the NC State team could guarantee it was analyzing only one molecule at a time,” he said.

Rice’s researchers hope future nanosubs will be able to carry cargoes for medical and other purposes. “There’s a path forward,” García-López said. “This is the first step, and we’ve proven the concept. Now we need to explore opportunities and potential applications.”

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

Unimolecular Submersible Nanomachines. Synthesis, Actuation, and Monitoring by Víctor García-López, Pinn-Tsong Chiang, Fang Chen, Gedeng Ruan, Angel A. Martí, Anatoly B. Kolomeisky, Gufeng Wang, and James M. Tour. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b03764 Publication Date (Web): November 5, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

There is an illustration of the 244-atom submersible,

Rice University scientists have created light-driven, single-molecule submersibles that contain just 244 atoms. Illustration by Loïc Samuel

Rice University scientists have created light-driven, single-molecule submersibles that contain just 244 atoms. Illustration by Loïc Samuel

Primordial goo for implants

Using the words ‘goo’ and ‘nanotechnology’ together almost always leads to ‘end of world’ scenarios referred to as  ‘grey goo‘ or there’s an alternative ‘green goo’ version also known as ecophagy. Presumably, that’s why Australian researchers avoided the word ‘nanotechnology’ in their study of the original goo, primordial goo from which all life oozed, to develop a coating for medical implants. From a Nov. 16, 2015 (Australia) Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) press release (also on EurekAlert),

Australia’s national science research organisation, CSIRO, has developed an innovative new coating that could be used to improve medical devices and implants, thanks to a “goo” thought to be have been home to the building blocks of life.

The molecules from this primordial goo – known as prebiotic compounds – can be traced back billions of years and have been studied intensively since their discovery several decades ago.

For the first time, Australian researchers have uncovered a way to use these molecules to assist with medical treatments.

“We wanted to use these prehistoric molecules, which are believed to have been the source of all life evolving on Earth, to see if we could apply the chemistry in a practical way.” [Dr. Richard Evans, CSIRO researcher]

The team discovered that the coating is bio-friendly and cells readily grow and colonise it.

It could be applied to medical devices to improve their performance and acceptance by the body.

This could assist with a range of medical procedures.

“The non-toxic coating (left) is adhesive and will coat almost any material making its potential biomedical applications really broad,” Dr Evans said.

The researchers also experimented with adding silver compounds, in order to produce an antibacterial coating that can be used on devices such as catheters to avoid infections.

“Other compounds can also be added to implants to reduce friction, make them more durable and resistant to wear,” Dr Evans said.

The coating process the scientists developed is very simple and uses methods and substances that are readily available.

This means biomedical manufacturers can produce improved results more cost effectively compared to existing coatings.

CSIRO is the first organisation to investigate practical applications of this kind using prebiotic chemistry.

“This research opens the door to a host of new biomedical possibilities that are still yet to be explored,” Dr Evans said.

CSIRO is seeking to partner with biomedical manufacturers to exploit this technology.

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

Prebiotic-chemistry inspired polymer coatings for biomedical and material science applications by Helmut Thissen, Aylin Koegler, Mario Salwiczek, Christopher D Easton, Yue Qu, Trevor Lithgow, and Richard A Evans.  NPG Asia Materials (2015) 7, e225; doi:10.1038/am.2015.122 Published online 13 November 2015

This is an open access paper,

STEM for refugees and disaster relief

Just hours prior to the terrorist bombings in Paris (Friday, Nov. 13, 2015), Tash Reith-Banks published a Nov. 13, 2015 essay (one of a series) in the Guardian about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as those specialties apply to humanitarian aid with a special emphasis on Syrian refugee crisis.

This first essay focuses on how engineering and mathematics are essential when dealing with crises (from Reith-Banks’s Nov. 13, 2015 essay), Note: Links have been removed,

Engineering is a clear starting point: sanitation, shelter and supply lines are all essential in any crisis. As Martin McCann, CEO at RedR, which trains humanitarian NGO workers says: “There is the obvious work in providing water and sanitation and shelter. By shelter, we mean not only shelter or housing for disaster-affected people or refugees, but also structures to store both food and non-food items. Access is always critical, so once again engineers are needed to build roads or in some cases temporary landing strips.”

Emergency structures need to be light and fast to transport and erect, but tend not to be durable. One recent development comes from engineers Peter Brewin and Will Crawford of Concrete Canvas., The pair have developed a rapid-setting concrete-impregnated fabric that requires only air and water to harden into a water-proof, fire-resistant construction. This has been used to create rapidly deployable concrete shelters that can be carried in a bag and set up in an hour.

Here’s what one of the concrete shelters looks like,

A Concrete Canvas shelter. Once erected the structure takes 24 hours to harden, and then can be further insulated with earth or snow if necessary. Photograph: Gareth Phillips/Gareth Phillips for the Guardian

A Concrete Canvas shelter. Once erected the structure takes 24 hours to harden, and then can be further insulated with earth or snow if necessary. Photograph: Gareth Phillips/Gareth Phillips for the Guardian

There are many kinds of crises which can lead to a loss of shelter, access to water and food, and diminished safety and health as Reith-Banks also notes in a passage featuring mathematics (Note: A link has been removed),

Maths might seem a far cry from the sort of practical innovation described above, but of course it’s the root of great logistics. Alistair Clark from the University of the West of England is using advanced mathematical modelling to improve humanitarian supply chains to ensure aid is sent exactly where it is needed. Part of the Newton Mobility scheme, Clark’s project will partner with Brazilian disaster relief agencies and develop ways of modelling everything from landslides to torrential downpours in order to create sophisticated humanitarian supply chains that can rapidly adapt to a range of possible disaster scenarios and changing circumstances.

In a similar vein, Professor Amr Elnashai, founder and co-editor of the Journal of Earthquake Engineering, works in earthquake-hit areas to plan humanitarian relief for future earthquakes. He recently headed a large research and development effort funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the USA (FEMA), to develop a computer model of the impact of earthquakes on the central eight states in the USA. This included social impact, temporary housing allocation, disaster relief, medical and educational care, as well as engineering damage and its economic impact.

Reith-Banks also references nanotechnology (Note: A link has been removed),

… Up to 115 people die every hour in Africa from diseases linked to contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation, particularly in the wake of conflicts and environmental disasters. Dr Askwar Hilonga recently won the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize, which is dedicated to African inventions with the potential to bring major social and economic benefits to the continent. Hilonga has invented a low cost, sand-based water filter. The filter combines nanotechnology with traditional sand-filtering methods to provide safe drinking water without expensive treatment facilities.  …

Dr. Hilonga who is based in Tanzania was featured here in a June 16, 2015 posting about the Royal Academy of Engineering Prize, his research, and his entrepreneurial efforts.

Reith-Banks’s* essay provides a valuable and unexpected perspective on the humanitarian crises which afflict this planet *and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series*.

*’Reith-Banks’s’ replaced ‘This’ and ‘and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series’ was added Nov. 17, 2015 at 1620 hours PST.

Setting a tone for Canadian science, now what about science and a culture of innovation?

On the heels of reinstating the mandatory long form census, removing the muzzle from Canadian government scientists, and assigning multiple new ministers to old and new ‘science’ ministries, Justin Trudeau has delivered his new ministerial mandate letters where he thanks the ministers for agreeing to serve and lays out his priorities. David Bruggeman provides priority lists from two of the letters in a Nov. 13, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The new Science Minister, Kirsty Duncan, was given the following priorities in her letter:

Create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.
Support your colleagues in the review and reform of Canada’s environmental assessment processes to ensure that environmental assessment decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence.
Support the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour [emphasis mine] in efforts to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs [emphasis mine].
Support your Ministerial colleagues as they re-insert scientific considerations into the heart of our decision-making and investment choices.

It’s worth noting – because it often gets lost – that this philosophy sees scientific knowledge and scientific considerations are but one input into policy and decision making.  [emphasis mine] Inform, not dictate.

It’s also worth noting that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (MP Navdeep Bains) is mentioned just once in the Minister of Science letter.  Looking at the letter sent to Minister Bains, it would seem that PM Trudeau sees science in this portfolio in service to economic development and innovation.  The role as outlined in the letter:

“As Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, your overarching goal will be to help Canadian businesses grow, innovate and export so that they can create good quality jobs and wealth for Canadians.  You will achieve this goal by working with provinces, territories, municipalities, the post-secondary education system, [emphasis mine] employers and labour to improve the quality and impact of our programs that support innovation, scientific research and entrepreneurship.  You will collaborate with provinces, territories and municipalities to align, where possible, your efforts.  I expect you to partner closely with businesses and sectors to support their efforts to increase productivity and innovation. …

I have a few comments about the ‘science’ letters. I’m happy to see the first priority for the Science minister is the appointment of a Chief Science Officer. David’s point about the letter’s emphasis that science is one input into the policy making process is interesting. Personally, I applaud the apparent even-handedness since scientific evidence is not always unequivocal but this does give the government some room to ignore scientific evidence in favour of other political considerations.

Finally, I see a gray area between the two ministries has been delineated with the Science minister being exhorted to:

“Support the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour in efforts to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs”

and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development being exhorted to

” … achieve this goal [economic prosperity] by working with provinces, territories, municipalities, the post-secondary education system, employers and labour to improve the quality and impact of our programs that support innovation, scientific research and entrepreneurship.”

Note the crossover where the Science minister is being asked to help develop more coop placements while the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister is being asked to work with the post-secondary education system and employers to improve programs for entrepreneurship. Interestingly the exhortation for the Innovation minister is included in the general text of the letter and not in the list of priorities.

There is one other ministry I’d like to include here and it’s Canadian Heritage. While it might seem an odd choice to some, there is what seems to be an increasing interest in the relationship between art, science, and the humanities. While I’m thrilled with much of the content in the Heritage letter,  mentions of science and technology are notably absent. Given what’s happened in our cultural sector (serious funding cutbacks over several years from both the Conservative government and previous Liberal governments), it’s understandable and it’s good to see more funding (from the Canadian Heritage Ministerial Mandate letter),

As Minister of Canadian Heritage, your overarching goal will be to implement our government’s plan to strengthen our cultural and creative industries. Our cultural sector is an enormous source of strength to the Canadian economy. Canada’s stories, shaped by our immense diversity, deserve to be celebrated and shared with the world. Our plan will protect our important national institutions, safeguard our official languages, promote the industries that reflect our unique identity as Canadians, and provide jobs and economic opportunities in our cultural and creative sectors.

You will be the leader of a strong team of ministers, supported by the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities and the Minister of Status of Women.

In particular, I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory, and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities:

  • Review current plans for Canada 150 [Canada will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017] and champion government-wide efforts to promote this important celebration.
  • Restore and increase funding for CBC/Radio-Canada, following consultation with the broadcaster and the Canadian cultural community.
  • Review the process by which members are appointed to the CBC/Radio-Canada Board of Directors, to ensure merit-based and independent appointments.
  • Double investment in the Canada Council for the Arts.
  • Increase funding for Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board.
  • Restore the Promart and Trade Routes International cultural promotion programs, update their design, and increase related funding.
  • Increase funding for the Young Canada Works program to help prepare the next generation of Canadians working in the heritage sector.
  • Work with the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities to make significant new investments in cultural infrastructure as part of our investment in social infrastructure.
  • Work in collaboration with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to provide new funding to promote, preserve and enhance Indigenous languages and cultures.

I hope at some point this government integrates a little science and technology into Canadian Heritage because we have often achieved breakthroughs, scientifically and technically, and we have, at times, achieved the impossible as anyone who’s taken a train ride through the Rocky Mountains knows. Plus, if the government wants to encourage entrepreneurship and risk-taking, Canadian artists of all types provide an excellent model.

For the interested, the Ministerial Mandate letters have been made publicly available.

Two final items, there’s a Nov. 16, 2015 posting by Josh Silberg on Science Borealis which provides a more comprehensive roundup of science commentary in the wake of the new Liberal government’s ascendance.  Yes, I’m on it and you may recognize some others as well but there should be one or two new writers to discover.

Second, Phil Plait who has written about Canadian science and the Conservative government’s policies many times provides a brief history of the situation along with a few ebullient comments about the changes that have been taking place. You can find it all in Plait’s Nov. 17, 2015 posting on