Powering up your graphene implants so you don’t get fried in the process

A Sept. 23, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a way of making graphene-based medical implants safer,

In the future, our health may be monitored and maintained by tiny sensors and drug dispensers, deployed within the body and made from graphene—one of the strongest, lightest materials in the world. Graphene is composed of a single sheet of carbon atoms, linked together like razor-thin chicken wire, and its properties may be tuned in countless ways, making it a versatile material for tiny, next-generation implants.

But graphene is incredibly stiff, whereas biological tissue is soft. Because of this, any power applied to operate a graphene implant could precipitously heat up and fry surrounding cells.

Now, engineers from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Tsinghua University in Beijing have precisely simulated how electrical power may generate heat between a single layer of graphene and a simple cell membrane. While direct contact between the two layers inevitably overheats and kills the cell, the researchers found they could prevent this effect with a very thin, in-between layer of water.

A Sept. 23, 2016 MIT news release by Emily Chu, which originated the news item, provides more technical details,

By tuning the thickness of this intermediate water layer, the researchers could carefully control the amount of heat transferred between graphene and biological tissue. They also identified the critical power to apply to the graphene layer, without frying the cell membrane. …

Co-author Zhao Qin, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), says the team’s simulations may help guide the development of graphene implants and their optimal power requirements.

“We’ve provided a lot of insight, like what’s the critical power we can accept that will not fry the cell,” Qin says. “But sometimes we might want to intentionally increase the temperature, because for some biomedical applications, we want to kill cells like cancer cells. This work can also be used as guidance [for those efforts.]”

Sandwich model

Typically, heat travels between two materials via vibrations in each material’s atoms. These atoms are always vibrating, at frequencies that depend on the properties of their materials. As a surface heats up, its atoms vibrate even more, causing collisions with other atoms and transferring heat in the process.

The researchers sought to accurately characterize the way heat travels, at the level of individual atoms, between graphene and biological tissue. To do this, they considered the simplest interface, comprising a small, 500-nanometer-square sheet of graphene and a simple cell membrane, separated by a thin layer of water.

“In the body, water is everywhere, and the outer surface of membranes will always like to interact with water, so you cannot totally remove it,” Qin says. “So we came up with a sandwich model for graphene, water, and membrane, that is a crystal clear system for seeing the thermal conductance between these two materials.”

Qin’s colleagues at Tsinghua University had previously developed a model to precisely simulate the interactions between atoms in graphene and water, using density functional theory — a computational modeling technique that considers the structure of an atom’s electrons in determining how that atom will interact with other atoms.

However, to apply this modeling technique to the group’s sandwich model, which comprised about half a million atoms, would have required an incredible amount of computational power. Instead, Qin and his colleagues used classical molecular dynamics — a mathematical technique based on a “force field” potential function, or a simplified version of the interactions between atoms — that enabled them to efficiently calculate interactions within larger atomic systems.

The researchers then built an atom-level sandwich model of graphene, water, and a cell membrane, based on the group’s simplified force field. They carried out molecular dynamics simulations in which they changed the amount of power applied to the graphene, as well as the thickness of the intermediate water layer, and observed the amount of heat that carried over from the graphene to the cell membrane.

Watery crystals

Because the stiffness of graphene and biological tissue is so different, Qin and his colleagues expected that heat would conduct rather poorly between the two materials, building up steeply in the graphene before flooding and overheating the cell membrane. However, the intermediate water layer helped dissipate this heat, easing its conduction and preventing a temperature spike in the cell membrane.

Looking more closely at the interactions within this interface, the researchers made a surprising discovery: Within the sandwich model, the water, pressed against graphene’s chicken-wire pattern, morphed into a similar crystal-like structure.

“Graphene’s lattice acts like a template to guide the water to form network structures,” Qin explains. “The water acts more like a solid material and makes the stiffness transition from graphene and membrane less abrupt. We think this helps heat to conduct from graphene to the membrane side.”

The group varied the thickness of the intermediate water layer in simulations, and found that a 1-nanometer-wide layer of water helped to dissipate heat very effectively. In terms of the power applied to the system, they calculated that about a megawatt of power per meter squared, applied in tiny, microsecond bursts, was the most power that could be applied to the interface without overheating the cell membrane.

Qin says going forward, implant designers can use the group’s model and simulations to determine the critical power requirements for graphene devices of different dimensions. As for how they might practically control the thickness of the intermediate water layer, he says graphene’s surface may be modified to attract a particular number of water molecules.

“I think graphene provides a very promising candidate for implantable devices,” Qin says. “Our calculations can provide knowledge for designing these devices in the future, for specific applications, like sensors, monitors, and other biomedical applications.”

This research was supported in part by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI): MIT-China Seed Fund, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, DARPA [US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Naval Research, the DoD Multidisciplinary Research Initiatives program, the MIT Energy Initiative, and the National Science Foundation.

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

Intercalated water layers promote thermal dissipation at bio–nano interfaces by Yanlei Wang, Zhao Qin, Markus J. Buehler, & Zhiping Xu. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12854 doi:10.1038/ncomms12854 Published 23 September 2016

This paper is open access.

The State of Science and Technology (S&T) and Industrial Research and Development (IR&D) in Canada

Earlier this year I featured (in a July 1, 2016 posting) the announcement of a third assessment of science and technology in Canada by the Council of Canadian Academies. At the time I speculated as to the size of the ‘expert panel’ making the assessment as they had rolled a second assessment (Industrial Research and Development) into this one on the state of science and technology. I now have my answer thanks to an Oct. 17, 2016 Council of Canadian Academies news release announcing the chairperson (received via email; Note: Links have been removed and emphases added for greater readability),

The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is pleased to announce Dr. Max Blouw, President and Vice-Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University, as Chair of the newly appointed Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology (S&T) and Industrial Research and Development (IR&D) in Canada.

“Dr. Blouw is a widely respected leader with a strong background in research and academia,” said Eric M. Meslin, PhD, FCAHS, President and CEO of the CCA. “I am delighted he has agreed to serve as Chair for an assessment that will contribute to the current policy discussion in Canada.”

As Chair of the Expert Panel, Dr. Blouw will work with the multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral Expert Panel to address the following assessment question, referred to the CCA by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED):

What is the current state of science and technology and industrial research and development in Canada?

Dr. Blouw will lead the CCA Expert Panel to assess the available evidence and deliver its final report by late 2017. Members of the panel include experts from different fields of academic research, R&D, innovation, and research administration. The depth of the Panel’s experience and expertise, paired with the CCA’s rigorous assessment methodology, will ensure the most authoritative, credible, and independent response to the question.

“I am very pleased to accept the position of Chair for this assessment and I consider myself privileged to be working with such an eminent group of experts,” said Dr. Blouw. “The CCA’s previous reports on S&T and IR&D provided crucial insights into Canada’s strengths and weaknesses in these areas. I look forward to contributing to this important set of reports with new evidence and trends.”

Dr. Blouw was Vice-President Research, Associate Vice-President Research, and Professor of Biology, at the University of Northern British Columbia, before joining Wilfrid Laurier as President. Dr. Blouw served two terms as the chair of the university advisory group to Industry Canada and was a member of the adjudication panel for the Ontario Premier’s Discovery Awards, which recognize the province’s finest senior researchers. He recently chaired the International Review Committee of the NSERC Discovery Grants Program.

For a complete list of Expert Panel members, their biographies, and details on the assessment, please visit the assessment page. The CCA’s Member Academies – the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences – are a key source of membership for expert panels. Many experts are also Fellows of the Academies.

The Expert Panel on the State of S&T and IR&D
Max Blouw, (Chair) President and Vice-Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University
Luis Barreto, President, Dr. Luis Barreto & Associates and Special Advisor, NEOMED-LABS
Catherine Beaudry, Professor, Department of Mathematical and Industrial Engineering, Polytechnique Montréal
Donald Brooks, FCAHS, Professor, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Chemistry, University of British Columbia
Madeleine Jean, General Manager, Prompt
Philip Jessop, FRSC, Professor, Inorganic Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Queen’s University; Technical Director, GreenCentre Canada
Claude Lajeunesse, FCAE, Corporate Director and Interim Chair of the Board of Directors, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
Steve Liang, Associate Professor, Geomatics Engineering, University of Calgary; Director, GeoSensorWeb Laboratory; CEO, SensorUp Inc.
Robert Luke, Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OCAD University
Douglas Peers, Professor, Dean of Arts, Department of History, University of Waterloo
John M. Thompson, O.C., FCAE, Retired Executive Vice-Chairman, IBM Corporation
Anne Whitelaw, Associate Dean Research, Faculty of Fine Arts and Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Concordia University
David A. Wolfe, Professor, Political Science and Co-Director, Innovation Policy Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

You can find more information about the expert panel here and about this assessment and its predecesors here.

A few observations, given the size of the task this panel is lean. As well, there are three women in a group of 13 (less than 25% representation) in 2016? It’s Ontario and Québec-dominant; only BC and Alberta rate a representative on the panel. I hope they will find ways to better balance this panel and communicate that ‘balanced story’ to the rest of us. On the plus side, the panel has representatives from the humanities, arts, and industry in addition to the expected representatives from the sciences.

Noniridescent photonics inspired by tarantulas

Last year, I was quite taken with a structural colour story centering on tarantulas which was featured in my Dec. 7, 2015 posting.

Cobalt Blue Tarantula [downloaded from http://www.tarantulaguide.com/tarantula-pictures/cobalt-blue-tarantula-4/]

Cobalt Blue Tarantula [downloaded from http://www.tarantulaguide.com/tarantula-pictures/cobalt-blue-tarantula-4/]

On Oct. 17, 2016 I was delighted to receive an email with the latest work from the same team who this time around crowdfunded resources to complete their research. Before moving on to the paper, here’s more from the team’s crowdfunder on Experiment was titled “The Development of Non-iridescent Structurally Colored Material Inspired by Tarantula Hairs,”

Many vibrant colors in nature are produced by nanostructures rather than pigments. But their application is limited by iridescence – changing hue and brightness with viewing angles. This project aims to mimic the nanostructures that tarantulas use to produce bright, non-iridescent blue colors to inspire next-generation, energy efficient, wide-angle color displays. Moreover, one day non-iridescent structural colorants may replace costly and toxic pigments and dyes.

What is the context of this research?

We recently discovered that some tarantulas produce vivid blue colors using unique nanostructures not found in other blue organisms like birds and Morpho butterflies. We described a number of different nanostructures that help explain how blue color evolved at least eight times within tarantulas. These colors are also remarkably non-iridescent so that they stay bright blue even at wide viewing angles, unlike the “flashy” structural colors seen in many birds and butterflies. We hypothesize that although the hue is produced by multilayer nanostructure, it is the hierarchical morphology of the hairs controls iridescence. We would like to validate our results from preliminary optical simulations by making nano-3D printed physical prototypes with and without key features of the tarantula hairs.

What is the significance of this project?

While iridescence can make a flashy signal to a mating bird or butterfly, it isn’t so useful in optical technology. This limits the application of structural colors in human contexts, even though they can be more vibrant and resist fading better than traditional pigment-based colors. For example, despite being energy efficient and viewable in direct sunlight, this butterfly-inspired color display, that utilizes principles of structural colors, has never made it into the mainstream because iridescence limits its viewing angle. We believe this limitation could be overcome using tarantula-inspired nanostructures that could be mass-produced in an economically viable way through top-down approaches. Those nanostructures may even be used to replace pigments and dyes someday!

What are the goals of the project?

We have designed five models that vary in complexity, incorporating successively more details of real tarantula hairs. We would like to fabricate those five designs by 3D nano-printing, so that we can test our hypothesis experimentally and determine which features produce blue and which remove iridescence. We’ll start making those designs as soon as we reach our goal and the project is fully funded. Once these designs are made, we will compare the angle-dependency of the colors produced by each design through angle-resolved reflectance spectrometry. We’ll also compare them visually through photography by taking series of shots from different angles similar to Fig. S4. Through those steps, we’ll be able to identify how each feature of the complex nanostructure contributes to color.

Ultra-high resolution (nano-scale) 3D printing
To fund nano 3D printing completely

This project has been designed using Biomimicry Thinking, and is a follow-up to our published, well-received tarantula research. In order to test our hypothesis, we are planning to use Photonic Professional GT by nanoscribe to fabricate tarantula hair-inspired prototypes by 3D printing nanostructures within millimeter sized swatches. To be able to 3D print nanostructures across these relatively large-sized swatches is critical to the success of our project. Currently, there’s no widely-accessible technology out there that meets our needs other than Photonic Professional GT. However, the estimated cost just for 3D printing those nanostructures alone is $20,000. So far, we have successfully raised and allocated $13,000 of research funds through conventional means, but we are still $7,000 short. Initial trial of our most complex prototype was a success. Therefore, we’re here, seeking your help. Please help us make this nano fabrication happen, and make this project a success! Thank you!

The researchers managed to raise $7, 708.00 in total, making this paper possible,

Tarantula-Inspired Noniridescent Photonics with Long-Range Order by Bor-Kai Hsiung, Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Lijia Jiang, Ying Liu, Yongfeng Lu, Matthew D. Shawkey, and Todd A. Blackledge. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adom.201600599 Version of Record online: 11 OCT 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall but I did manage to get my hands on a copy. So here are a few highlights from the paper,

Pigment-based colorants are used for applications ranging from textiles to packaging to cosmetics.[1] However, structural-based alternatives can be more vibrant, durable, and eco-friendly relative to pigmentary colors.[2] Moreover, optical nanostructures are highly tunable, they can achieve a full color gamut by slight alterations to spacing.[3] However, light interference and/or diffraction from most photonic structures results in iridescence,[4] which limits their broader applications. Iridescent colors that change hue when viewed from different directions are useful for niche markets, such as security and anticounterfeiting, {emphasis mine} [5] but are not desirable for most applications, such as paints, coatings, electronic displays, and apparels. Hence, fabricating a photonic structure that minimizes iridescence is a key step to unlocking the potential applications of structural colors.

Noniridescent structural colors in nature are produced by coherent scattering of light by quasi-ordered, amorphous photonic structures (i.e., photonic glass),[6–10] or photonic polycrystals [9,11–14] that possess only short-range order. Iridescence is thought to be a fundamental component of photonic structures with long-range order, such as multilayers.[4] However, the complexity of short-range order photonic structures prohibits their design and fabrication using top-down approaches while bottom-up synthesis using colloidal suspension[15,16] or self-assembly[17–20] lack the tight controls over the spatial and temporal scales needed for industrial mass production. Photonic structures with long-range order are easier to model mathematically. Hence, long-range order photonic structures are intrinsically suitable for top-down fabrication, where precise feature placement and scalability can be guaranteed.

Recently, we found blue color produced by multilayer interference on specialized hairs from two species of blue tarantulas (Poecilotheria metallica (Figure 1a,b) and Lampropelma violaceopes) that was largely angle independent.[21] We hypothesize that the iridescent effects of the multilayer are reduced by hierarchical structuring of the hairs. Specifically, the hairs have: (1) high degrees of rotational symmetry, (2) hierarchy—with subcylindrical multilayers surrounding a larger, overarching multilayer cylinder, and (3) nanoscale surface grooves. Because all of these structures co-occur on the tarantulas, it is impossible to decouple them simply by observing nature. Here, we use optical simulation and nano-3D rapid prototyping to demonstrate that introducing design features seen in these tarantulas onto a multilayer photonic structure nearly eliminates iridescence. As far as we are aware, this is the first known example of a noniridescent structural color produced by a photonic structure with both short and long-range order. This opens up an array of new possibilities for photonic structure design and fabrication to produce noniridescent structural colors and is a key first step to achieving economically viable solutions for mass production of noniridescent structural color.  … (p. 1 PDF)

There is a Canadian security and anti-counterfeiting company (Nanotech Security Corp.), inspired by the Morpho butterfly and its iridescent blue, which got its start in Bozena Kaminska’s laboratory at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada).

Getting back to the paper, after a few twists and turns, they conclude with this,

This approach of producing noniridescent structural colors using photonic structures with long-range order (i.e., modified multilayer) has, to our knowledge, not been explored previously. Our findings reaffirm the value of using nature and the biomimetic process as a tool for innovation and our approach also may help to overcome the current inability of colloidal self-assembly to achieve pure noniridescent structural red due to single-particle scattering and/or multiple scattering.[25] As a result, our research provides a new and easy way for designing structural colorants with customizable hues (see Figure S6, Supporting Information, as one of the potential examples) and iridescent effects to satisfy the needs of different applications. While nano-3D printing of these nanostructures is not viable for mass production, it does identify the key features that are necessary for top-down fabrication. With promising nanofabrication techniques, such as preform drawing[26]—a generally scalable methodology that has been demonstrated for fabricating particles with complex internal architectures and continuously tunable diameters down to nanometer scale[27] – it is possible to mass produce these “designer structural colorants” in an economically viable manner. Our discovery of how to produce noniridescent structural colors using long-range order may therefore lead to a more sustainable future that does not rely upon toxic and wasteful synthetic pigments and dyes. (p. 5)

I’m glad to have gotten caught up with the work. Thank you, Bor-Kai Hsiung.

Graphene Malaysia 2016 gathering and Malaysia’s National Graphene Action Plan 2020

Malaysia is getting ready to host a graphene conference according to an Oct. 10, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

The Graphene Malaysia 2016 [Nov. 8 – 9, 2016] (www.graphenemalaysiaconf.com) is jointly organized by NanoMalaysia Berhad and Phantoms Foundation. The conference will be centered on graphene industry interaction and collaborative innovation. The event will be launched under the National Graphene Action Plan 2020 (NGAP 2020), which will generate about 9,000 jobs and RM20 (US$4.86) billion GNI impact by the year 2020.

First speakers announced:
Murni Ali (Nanomalaysia, Malaysia) | Francesco Bonaccorso (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Italy) | Antonio Castro Neto (NUS, Singapore) | Antonio Correia (Phantoms Foundation, Spain)| Pedro Gomez-Romero (ICN2 (CSIC-BIST), Spain) | Shu-Jen Han (Nanoscale Science & Technology IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, USA) | Kuan-Tsae Huang (AzTrong, USA/Taiwan) | Krzysztof Koziol (FGV Cambridge Nanosystems, UK) | Taavi Madiberk (Skeleton Technologies, Estonia) | Richard Mckie (BAE Systems, UK) | Pontus Nordin (Saab AB, Saab Aeronautics, Sweden) | Elena Polyakova (Graphene Laboratories Inc., USA) | Ahmad Khairuddin Abdul Rahim (Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA), Malaysia) | Adisorn Tuantranont (Thailand Organic and Printed Electronics Innovation Center, Thailand) |Archana Venugopal (Texas Instruments, USA) | Won Jong Yoo (Samsung-SKKU Graphene-2D Center (SSGC), South Korea) | Hongwei Zhu (Tsinghua University, China)

You can check for more information and deadlines in the Nanotechnology Now Oct. 10, 2016 news item.

The Graphene Malalysia 2016 conference website can be found here and Malaysia’s National Graphene Action Plan 2020, which is well written, can be found here (PDF).  This portion from the executive summary offers some insight into Malyasia’s plans to launch itself into the world of high income nations,

Malaysia’s aspiration to become a high-income nation by 2020 with improved jobs and better outputs is driving the country’s shift away from “business as usual,” and towards more innovative and high value add products. Within this context, and in accordance with National policies and guidelines, Graphene, an emerging, highly versatile carbon-based nanomaterial, presents a unique opportunity for Malaysia to develop a high value economic ecosystem within its industries.  Isolated only in 2004, Graphene’s superior physical properties such as electrical/ thermal conductivity, high strength and high optical transparency, combined with its manufacturability have raised tremendous possibilities for its application across several functions and make it highly interesting for several applications and industries.  Currently, Graphene is still early in its development cycle, affording Malaysian companies time to develop their own applications instead of relying on international intellectual property and licenses.

Considering the potential, several leading countries are investing heavily in associated R&D. Approaches to Graphene research range from an expansive R&D focus (e.g., U.S. and the EU) to more focused approaches aimed at enhancing specific downstream applications with Graphene (e.g., South Korea). Faced with the need to push forward a multitude of development priorities, Malaysia must be targeted in its efforts to capture Graphene’s potential, both in terms of “how to compete” and “where to compete”. This National Graphene Action Plan 2020 lays out a set of priority applications that will be beneficial to the country as a whole and what the government will do to support these efforts.

Globally, much of the Graphene-related commercial innovation to date has been upstream, with producers developing techniques to manufacture Graphene at scale. There has also been some development in downstream sectors, as companies like Samsung, Bayer MaterialScience, BASF and Siemens explore product enhancement with Graphene in lithium-ion battery anodes and flexible displays, and specialty plastic and rubber composites. However the speed of development has been uneven, offering Malaysian industries willing to invest in innovation an opportunity to capture the value at stake. Since any innovation action plan has to be tailored to the needs and ambitions of local industry, Malaysia will focus its Graphene action plan initially on larger domestic industries (e.g., rubber) and areas already being targeted by the government for innovation such as energy storage for electric vehicles and conductive inks.

In addition to benefiting from the physical properties of Graphene, Malaysian downstream application providers may also capture the benefits of a modest input cost advantage for the domestic production of Graphene.  One commonly used Graphene manufacturing technique, the chemical vapour deposition (CVD) production method, requires methane as an input, which can be sourced economically from local biomass. While Graphene is available commercially from various producers around the world, downstream players may be able to enjoy some cost advantage from local Graphene supply. In addition, co-locating with a local producer for joint product development has the added benefit of speeding up the R&D lifecycle.

That business about finding downstream applications could also to the Canadian situation where we typically offer our resources (upstream) but don’t have an active downstream business focus. For example, we have graphite mines in Ontario and Québec which supply graphite flakes for graphene production which is all upstream. Less well developed are any plans for Canadian downstream applications.

Finally, it was interesting to note that the Phantoms Foundation is organizing this Malaysian conference since the same organization is organizing the ‘2nd edition of Graphene & 2D Materials Canada 2016 International Conference & Exhibition’ (you can find out more about the Oct. 18 – 20, 2016 event in my Sept. 23, 2016 posting). I think the Malaysians have a better title for their conference, far less unwieldy.

Tattoo therapy for chronic disease?

It’s good to wake up to something truly new. In this case, it’s using tattoos and nanoparticles for medical applications. From a Sept. 22, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A temporary tattoo to help control a chronic disease might someday be possible, according to scientists at Baylor College of Medicine [Texas, US] who tested antioxidant nanoparticles created at Rice University [Texas, US].

A Sept. 22, 2016 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, provides more information and some good explanations of the terms used (Note: Links have been removed),

A proof-of-principle study led by Baylor scientist Christine Beeton published today by Nature’s online, open-access journal Scientific Reports shows that nanoparticles modified with polyethylene glycol are conveniently choosy as they are taken up by cells in the immune system.

That could be a plus for patients with autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, one focus of study at the Beeton lab. “Placed just under the skin, the carbon-based particles form a dark spot that fades over about one week as they are slowly released into the circulation,” Beeton said.

T and B lymphocyte cells and macrophages are key components of the immune system. However, in many autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, T cells are the key players. One suspected cause is that T cells lose their ability to distinguish between invaders and healthy tissue and attack both.

In tests at Baylor, nanoparticles were internalized by T cells, which inhibited their function, but ignored by macrophages. “The ability to selectively inhibit one type of cell over others in the same environment may help doctors gain more control over autoimmune diseases,” Beeton said.

“The majority of current treatments are general, broad-spectrum immunosuppressants,” said Redwan Huq, lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Beeton lab. “They’re going to affect all of these cells, but patients are exposed to side effects (ranging) from infections to increased chances of developing cancer. So we get excited when we see something new that could potentially enable selectivity.” Since the macrophages and other splenic immune cells are unaffected, most of a patient’s existing immune system remains intact, he said.

The soluble nanoparticles synthesized by the Rice lab of chemist James Tour have shown no signs of acute toxicity in prior rodent studies, Huq said. They combine polyethylene glycol with hydrophilic carbon clusters, hence their name, PEG-HCCs. The carbon clusters are 35 nanometers long, 3 nanometers wide and an atom thick, and bulk up to about 100 nanometers in globular form with the addition of PEG. They have proven to be efficient scavengers of reactive oxygen species called superoxide molecules, which are expressed by cells the immune system uses to kill invading microorganisms.

T cells use superoxide in a signaling step to become activated. PEG-HCCs remove this superoxide from the T cells, preventing their activation without killing the cells.

Beeton became aware of PEG-HCCs during a presentation by former Baylor graduate student Taeko Inoue, a co-author of the new study. “As she talked, I was thinking, ‘That has to work in models of multiple sclerosis,’” Beeton said. “I didn’t have a good scientific rationale, but I asked for a small sample of PEG-HCCs to see if they affected immune cells.

“We found they affected the T lymphocytes and not the other splenic immune cells, like the macrophages. It was completely unexpected,” she said.

The Baylor lab’s tests on animal models showed that small amounts of PEG-HCCs injected under the skin are slowly taken up by T lymphocytes, where they collect and inhibit the cell’s function. They also found the nanoparticles did not remain in T cells and dispersed within days after uptake by the cells.

“That’s an issue because you want a drug that’s in the system long enough to be effective, but not so long that, if you have a problem, you can’t remove it,” Beeton said. “PEG-HCCs can be administered for slow release and don’t stay in the system for long. This gives us much better control over the circulating half-life.”

“The more we study the abilities of these nanoparticles, the more surprised we are at how useful they could be for medical applications,” Tour said. The Rice lab has published papers with collaborators at Baylor and elsewhere on using functionalized nanoparticles to deliver cancer drugs to tumors and to quench the overproduction of superoxides after traumatic brain injuries.

Beeton suggested delivering carbon nanoparticles just under the skin rather than into the bloodstream would keep them in the system longer, making them more available for uptake by T cells. And the one drawback – a temporary but visible spot on the skin that looks like a tattoo – could actually be a perk to some.

“We saw it made a black mark when we injected it, and at first we thought that’s going to be a real problem if we ever take it into the clinic,” Beeton said. “But we can work around that. We can inject into an area that’s hidden, or use micropattern needles and shape it.

“I can see doing this for a child who wants a tattoo and could never get her parents to go along,” she said. “This will be a good way to convince them.”

The research was supported by Baylor College of Medicine, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, National Institutes of Health, the Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center, John S. Dunn Gulf Coast Consortium for Chemical Genomics and the U.S. Army-funded Traumatic Brain Injury Consortium.

That’s an interesting list of funders at the end of the news release.

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

Preferential uptake of antioxidant carbon nanoparticles by T lymphocytes for immunomodulation by Redwan Huq, Errol L. G. Samuel, William K. A. Sikkema, Lizanne G. Nilewski, Thomas Lee, Mark R. Tanner, Fatima S. Khan, Paul C. Porter, Rajeev B. Tajhya, Rutvik S. Patel, Taeko Inoue, Robia G. Pautler, David B. Corry, James M. Tour, & Christine Beeton. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 33808 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep33808 Published online: 22 September 2016

This paper is open access.

Here’s an image provided by the researchers,

Polyethylene glycol-hydrophilic carbon clusters developed at Rice University were shown to be selectively taken up by T cells, which inhibits their function, in tests at Baylor College of Medicine. The researchers said the nanoparticles could lead to new strategies for controlling autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis. (Credit: Errol Samuel/Rice University) - See more at: http://news.rice.edu/2016/09/22/tattoo-therapy-could-ease-chronic-disease/#sthash.sIfs3b0S.dpuf

Polyethylene glycol-hydrophilic carbon clusters developed at Rice University were shown to be selectively taken up by T cells, which inhibits their function, in tests at Baylor College of Medicine. The researchers said the nanoparticles could lead to new strategies for controlling autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis. (Credit: Errol Samuel/Rice University)

Panasonic powers up a village in Myanmar with photovoltaics

This story reminded me of an account I read (when I was working in the city’s archives) of Vancouver’s (Canada) West End where residents were advised against going out at night after the sun set because there was no street lighting. And, in those days (19th century) the city was still somewhat forested with bears, foxes, coyotes, and other wild animals being a lot more common that they are today. (Vancouver is a big city but there are coyote warning signs on its beaches and residents of North Vancouver [a nearby municipality] occasionally have awakened to find bears in their backyards.)

Moving onto the true subject of this posting, Myanmar and power, a Sept. 22, 2016 news item on phys.org announced the presence of a new power grid in a village in Myanmar,

Panasonic Corporation provided the Power Supply Station; a stand-alone photovoltaic power package, to the village of Yin Ma Chaung, a Magway Region of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The Power Supply Station is installed as part of a CSR [Corporate social responsibility?] effort by the Sustainable Alternative Livelihood Development Project, supported by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage (MFL Foundation) of the Kingdom of Thailand. This project was rolled out in partnership with Mitsui & Co., Ltd as one of their CSR activities, and funded by donations to support the mission of the MFL Foundation’s activities.

A Sept. 22, 2016 Panasonic press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the power station,

Panasonic’s power supply station consists of solar modules and storage batteries, which enables energy to be created, stored and managed efficiently. The whole system is able to supply electricity to the entire village, relieving approximately 140 households in the non-electrified mountainous village by powering up electrical appliances and lights, which are essential and important in daily lives.

The presence of lightings [sic] in the village makes it possible for villagers to move around during the night, as prior to that; they were unable to do so since the area is inhabited by poisonous snakes. In addition, all the street lights have time-switch LED bulbs that could also make use of limited electricity, efficiently.

In Myanmar, its off-grid areas are said to be at the highest level among the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries, at approximately 68%1 across the nation. In its countryside, the number reaches to an estimate of 84%2 households being unconnected to electricity. To step up on its efforts, Panasonic also installed a refrigerator in the village’s meeting area to store anti-venom drugs. With a well-powered point, the meeting area has thus serves as a center for welfare, entertainment and other purposes.

The whole initiative aimed to provide additional electricity to surrounding villages as well; contributing to the entire Yenan Chuang Township.

Panasonic will continue to develop localized solutions in its bid to provide electricity to off-grid regions and improves the standard of living amongst communities, around the world.

The Power Supply Station is equipped with twelve Panasonic HIT solar modules and can output approximately 3 kW of electricity. It is also equipped with 24 storage batteries (approximately 17 kWh), enabling it to supply stored power.

Features of the Power Supply Station stand-alone photovoltaic power package

(1) Stable quality and performance achieved by production at the factory

The Power Supply Station was developed as a mass produced product to deliver stable quality overseas. The unit for this project was manufactured and its quality was controlled by our Thai subsidiary, Panasonic Eco Solutions Steel (Thailand) Co., Ltd., before delivery to Myanmar.

(2)Simple and quick assembly for portability and expansion

The station is designed to eliminate the need for on-site professional construction work, allowing an electrical contractor to easily and quickly install it.

(3) Utilization of proven Panasonic technologies

The station uses Panasonic HIT 3 solar modules to provide power efficiently, even in restricted spaces. The company’s newly developed power supply main unit acts as the energy management system to monitor the remaining electricity level of the lead-acid storage batteries and controls supply and demand, reducing deterioration of the batteries. This reduces the life-cycle cost and maintenance man-hours for the storage batteries.

There is a video which reminds you of what life could be like without electricity in the context of this Power Supply Station installation,

It’s nice to be reminded of how magical electricity and all its accoutrements are as so many of us with easy access take it all for granted.

Nanosunscreen in swimming pools

Thanks to Lynn L. Bergeson’s Sept. 21, 2016 posting for information about the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) research into what happens to the nanoparticles when your nanosunscreen washes off into a swimming pool. Bergeson’s post points to an Aug. 15, 2016 EPA blog posting by Susanna Blair,

… It’s not surprising that sunscreens are detected in pool water (after all, some is bound to wash off when we take a dip), but certain sunscreens have also been widely detected in our ecosystems and in our wastewater. So how is our sunscreen ending up in our environment and what are the impacts?

Well, EPA researchers are working to better understand this issue, specifically investigating sunscreens that contain engineered nanomaterials and how they might change when exposed to the chemicals in pool water [open access paper but you need to register for free] … But before I delve into that, let’s talk a bit about sunscreen chemistry and nanomaterials….

Blair goes on to provide a good brief description of  nanosunscreens before moving onto her main topic,

Many sunscreens contain titanium dioxide (TiO2) because it absorbs UV radiation, preventing it from damaging our skin. But titanium dioxide decomposes into other molecules when in the presence of water and UV radiation. This is important because one of the new molecules produced is called a singlet oxygen reactive oxygen species. These reactive oxygen species have been shown to cause extensive cell damage and even cell death in plants and animals. To shield skin from reactive oxygen species, titanium dioxide engineered nanomaterials are often coated with other materials such as aluminum hydroxide (Al(OH)3).

EPA researchers are testing to see whether swimming pool water degrades the aluminum hydroxide coating, and if the extent of this degradation is enough to allow the production of potentially harmful reactive oxygen species. In this study, the coated titanium dioxide engineered nanomaterials were exposed to pool water for time intervals ranging from 45 minutes to 14 days, followed by imaging using an electron microscope.  Results show that after 3 days, pool water caused the aluminum hydroxide coating to degrade, which can reduce the coating’s protective properties and increase the potential toxicity.  To be clear, even with degraded coating, the toxicity measured from the coated titanium dioxide, was significantly less [emphasis mine] than the uncoated material. So in the short-term – in the amount of time one might wear sunscreen before bathing and washing it off — these sunscreens still provide life-saving protection against UV radiation. However, the sunscreen chemicals will remain in the environment considerably longer, and continue to degrade as they are exposed to other things.

Blair finishes by explaining that research is continuing as the EPA researches the whole life cycle of engineered nanomaterials.

American Association for the Advancement of Science 2016 Mass Media Fellows program is open for submissions

Before getting to the latest information for applying, Matt Miller has written an exuberant and enticing  description of his experiences as a 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellow for Slate.com in his Oct. 17, 2016 article for them (Note: Links have been removed),

If you’ve ever wanted to write for Slate (or other major media organizations), now is your chance—provided you’re a graduate student or postdoc in science, math, engineering, or medicine [enrolled in a university and with a US citizenship or visa that allows you to receive paymet for work].* The American Association for the Advancement of Science will soon be opening applications for its 2017 Mass Media Fellowship. Along with Slate, publications like Wired, Scientific American, NPR [National Public Radio], and the Los Angeles Times will be hosting fellows who will work as science writers for 10 weeks starting in June of next year.


While many of my classmates were drawing blood and administering vaccines [Miller is a student in a School of Veterinary Medicine], I flew up to New York and started learning how to be a journalist. In Slate’s Brooklyn office, I read the abstracts of newly released journal articles and pitched countless story ideas. I drank lots of coffee, sat in on editorial meetings, and interviewed scientists from almost every field imaginable (entomologists are the best). Perhaps the highlight of the whole summer was being among the first to cover the rising cost of EpiPens, a scandal that has recently led to a congressional hearing.

A large part of what I did this summer involved explaining the scientific fundamentals behind the research and making the findings more accessible and exciting to a general audience. Science writing involves a great deal of translation; scientists often get so tied up in the particulars of their research—exactly how an enzyme cleaves this protein, or whether a newly discovered bird is technically a new species—that they forget to talk about the wider societal implications their research might have on culture and civilization. But science writing also matters for the same reason all journalism matters. Science journalism can play the important role of watchdog, holding the powerful accountable and airing out things that don’t quite seem right.

You can find the application here. Don’t forget to read the eligibility rules (no students enrolled in English, journalism, science journalism, or other non-technical fields need apply).

Good luck!

*ETA Oct. 18, 2016 9:52 am PDT: The deadline for applications is midnight EST Jan. 15, 2017.

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) October 18, 2016 talk: At the intersection of Space and Genetics

Vancouver’s (Canada) Café Scientifique seems to have settled in at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W. Pender), which is hosting (for the third time in four months) an upcoming 2016 Café Scientifique talk. From the October 17, 2016 notice received via email,

We are pleased to announce that this month’s event will be a collaboration with the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG).  The café will be held tomorrow (Tuesday October 18th) at 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown, 433 W Pender.  Please note that this date is one week earlier than usual to coincide with the ASHG Annual Meeting.  Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Ting Wu, from the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. The title of her talk is:

At the intersection of Space and Genetics

Ting (C.-ting) Wu, Ph.D., is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. She is also the Director of the Consortium for Space Genetics, the Director of the Personal Genetics Education (pgEd.org) Project, and a recipient of an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. Her laboratory investigates how chromosome organization influences genome function, inventing and applying technologies for imaging the genome as well as studying how a very puzzling set of sequences, called ultraconserved elements (UCEs), have managed to resist change for a stunning 300 million years. These studies have led her group to consider the potential of their findings for protecting astronauts from the extreme conditions of long-term travel in space. The Wu laboratory also houses the Personal Genetics Education Project, which works to raise public awareness and discourse regarding personal genetics, aiming to make that awareness equal across all communities, regardless of socioeconomic, ethnic, educational, and religious influences.

Have a lovely time!

Walgreens (US-based pharmacy), As You Sow (civil society), and engineered hydroxyapatite (HA) nanoparticles

As You Sow has graced this blog before, notably in a March 13, 2015 posting about their success getting the corporate giant, Dunkin’ Donuts, to stop its practice of making powdered sugar whiter by adding nanoscale (and other scales) of titanium dioxide. What’s notable about As You Sow is that it files shareholder resolutions (in other words, the society owns shares of their corporate target) as one of its protest tactics.

This time, As You Sow has focused on Walgreens, a US pharmacy giant. This company has chosen a response that differs from Dunkin’ Donuts’ according to a Sept. 21, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Rather than respond to shareholder concerns that Walgreens’ store-brand infant formula may contain harmful, “needle-like” nanomaterials, Walgreens filed a motion with the SEC [US Securities and Regulatory Commission] to block the inquiry.

A Sept. 21, 2016 As You Sow press release, which originated the news item, fills in a few details,

Walgreen’s Well Beginnings™ Advantage® infant formula has been reported to contain engineered hydroxyapatite (HA) nanoparticles, according to independent laboratory testing commissioned by nonprofit group Friends of the Earth. The E.U. Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) has determined that nano-HA may be toxic to humans and that the needle-form of nano-HA should not be used in products.

Walgreens’ “no-action letter” to the SEC argues that the company can exclude the shareholder proposal because “the use of nanomaterials in products … does not involve a significant social policy issue.” The company also claims its infant formula does not contain engineered nanomaterials, contrary to the independent laboratory testing.

“Walgreens is effectively silencing shareholder discussion of this subject,” said Austin Wilson, Environmental Health Program Manager of shareholder advocacy group As You Sow. “If Walgreens had responded to consumers’ and investors’ concerns, there would be no need for shareholders to file a proposal.”

“Shareholders will ultimately bear the burden of litigation if infants are harmed,” said Danielle Fugere, President and Chief Counsel of As You Sow. “Walgreens’ attempt to silence, rather than address, shareholder concerns raises red flags. To be successful, Walgreens must remain a trusted name for consumers and it can’t do that by sweeping new health studies under the rug.”

Nanoparticles are extremely small particles that can permeate cell membranes and travel throughout the body, including into organs, in ways that larger ingredients cannot. The extremely small size of nanoparticles may result in greater toxicity for human health and the environment.

The shareholder proposal asks the company to issue a report about actions the company is taking to reduce or eliminate the risk of nanoparticles.

In 2014, Dunkin’ Donuts reached an agreement with As You Sow to remove the nanoparticle titanium dioxide from its donuts. Starbucks plans to remove it from all products by 2017, and Krispy Kreme is reformulating its products to exclude titanium dioxide and other nanoparticles.

To seemingly dismiss concerns about their brand infant formula appears to be an odd tactic for Walgreens. After all this is infant safety and it’s the kind of thing that makes people very, very angry. On the other hand, Friends of the Earth has not always been scrupulous in its presentation of ‘facts’ (see my Feb. 9, 2012 posting).

2016 hasn’t been a good year for Walgreens. In June they ended their high profile partnership with blood testing startup, Theranos. From a June 13, 2016 article by Abigail Tracy for Vanity Fair,

After months of getting pummeled at the hands of regulators and the media over its questionable blood-testing technology, Theranos may have just been dealt its final blow. Walgreens, the main source of Theranos’s customers, has officially ended its partnership with the embattled biotech company, cutting off a critical revenue stream for founder Elizabeth Holmes’s once-promising start-up.

In a statement issued Sunday [June 12, 2016], the drugstore chain announced that it was terminating its nearly three-year-long relationship with the once $9 billion company and would immediately close all 40 Theranos-testing locations in its Arizona stores, The Wall Street Journal reports. Like so many in Silicon Valley, Walgreens fell victim to Holmes’s claims that Theranos’s technology, and its proprietary diagnostic product, Edison, would revolutionize blood testing and put its rivals, Laboratory Corporation of America and Quest Diagnostics, out of business. When it inked its deal with Holmes in 2013, Walgreens failed to properly vet the Edison technology, which was billed as being capable of conducting hundreds of diagnostics tests with just a few drops of blood.

You can read more about the Theranos situation in Tracy’s June 13, 2016 article and I have some details in a Sept. 2, 2016 posting where I feature the scandal and the proposed movie about Theranos (and other ‘science’ movies).

Getting back to Walgreens, you can find the As You Sow resolution here.