Nanotechnology in the Security Systems; NATO Science for Peace and Security workshops

An Aug. 19, 2014 news item on Nanowerk features a new publication from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) which seems to be the outcome of a 2013 workshop, Note: A link has been removed,

The topics discussed at the NATO Advanced Research Workshop “Nanotechnology in the Security Systems” included nanophysics, nanotechnology, nanomaterials, sensors, biosensors security systems, explosive detection.

A new book in the NATO Science for Peace and Security Series C: Environmental Security covers the findings from this workshop: Nanotechnology in the Security Systems.

The 2013 workshop (information about the upcoming 2014 workshop after this) took place in the Ukraine, which seems strangely ironic given the current situation where Russia has ‘intervened’ in the Crimea and where one group or another shot down an Air Malaysia flight over Ukraine airspace,

NATO ADVANCED RESEARCH WORKSHOP
29 September – 3 October 2013 ,
YALTA , UKRAINE

NANOTECHNOLOGY IN THE SECURITY SYSTEMS (NSS-2013)

(http://www.natonano.com)

CO-DIRECTORS:
Bonca Janez (J.Stefan Institute, Ljublyana, Slovenia)
Kruchinin Sergei (Bogolyubov Institute for Theoretical Physics, Ukraine)

INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE :
Balatsky Alexandr (Los Alamos National laboratory,USA )
Logan David (Oxford University,UK)

ARW is supported by NATO.

Co-sponsor is Ministry of Ukraine for Education and Science.

The main objective of this Advanced Research Workshop is to bring together leading experts on key current topics in nanotechnology ,security systems and sensor and biosensor in order to review recent developments and to outline new directions for nanotechnology research. Topids will include physics of graphene, nanomaterials, CRBN agents.

Time and Location

The ARW will be held from 29 September – 3 October 2013 at the “Yalta” Hotel (three star) in Yalta (Crimea, Ukraine). Yalta is a world-famous health resort and the centre of a large resort area stretchening for more than 70 km along the southern coast of the Crimea. [emphasis mine]

All partipants of the ARW will be accommodated in the hotel. There is auditorium seating 100, which is fitted with modern acoustic equipment. Breakfast, lunch and dinner will be served for all participants. At the hotel there is an indoor swimming pool with heated sea water.

Participants may travel to the ARW from Kiev international airport. You can use the regular flight (Boeing) Kiev – Simferopol(Yalta) – Kiev, leaving Kiev on September 29 at 18:45 and leaving Simferopol on October 3 at 21:10. The price of tickets Kiev-Simferopol-Kiev is 160 EURO. There are direct flights from many Cities to Simferopol.

This year’s workshop will be held in Turkey, From the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (US) website’s NATO Advanced Research Workshop in Nanotechnology (2014) webpage,

NATO Advanced Research Workshop in Nanotechnology to Aid Chemical and Biological Defence

September 22-26, 2014

Rixos Downtown Hotel

Antalya, Turkey

The NATO Science for Peace and Security Program has identified Defense against CBRN Agents and Environmental Security as key priority areas.  Nanomaterials and nanotechnology can play a vital role in the detection and decontamination of chemical and biological threat agents. They also can be used in protective technologies. The ability to control matter on an atomic and/or molecular scale provides new opportunities to use materials. The area of sensing is a particularly relevant example in which nanotechnology can be useful, by exploiting the unique properties and phenomena exerted by matter at the nano-scale. Rather than just thinking in terms of miniaturization of sensors and devices, it is possible to imagine entirely new technologies that are developed to exploit novel nano-scale phenomena. Combining nanotechnology with biomolecular systems, we have the power of nanobiotechnology to achieve improved detection, decontamination and protection against chemical and bio-agents.

The purpose of this ARW will be to bring together a diverse group of international civilian researchers focused on nanoscience and nanotechnology problems that are relevant to chemical and biological defence needs, in order to share the state-of-the-art in the field, identify accomplishments, and to discuss the challenges and opportunities present in the field. The work discussed here will form a blueprint for researchers in the area of nanotechnology for chemical and biological defense, especially for future research in detection, decontamination and protection.

Confirmed Invited Speakers:
Professor Terri Camesano     Worcester Polytechnic Institute     USA
Dr. N. Chanisvili     IBMV Tbilisi     Georgia [Country]
Dr. Ario DeMarco     University of Nova Gorica     Slovenia
Dr. Mario Boehme     TU Darmstadt     Germany
Dr. Audrey Beaussart     Université Catholique de Louvain     Belgium
Dr. Jêrôme Duval     Ecole Nationales Supérieure de Géologie     France
Dr. Mladen Franko     University of Nova Gorica     Slovenia
Professor Perena Gouma     SUNY Stony Brook     USA
Dr. Roland Grunow     Robert Koch Institut     Germany
Professor Giorgi Kvesitadze   Tbilisi State University and Georgia Technical University    Georgia
Professor Raj Mutharasan     Drexel University     USA
Dr. Michele Penza     ENEA, Brindisi     Italy
Dr. Irena Ciglenecki-Jusic     Institut Ruđer Bošković     Croatia
Professor Sadunishvili Tinatin     Durmishidze Institute of Biochemistry and Biotechnology, Agrarian University of Georgia     Georgia
Dr. Polonca Trebse     University of Nova Gorica     Slovenia
Professor Monique van Hoek     George Mason University     USA
Professor David Wright     Vanderbilt University     USA
Dr Ahmet Ozgur Yazaydin     University College London     UK

*******This workshop is supported by the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme

*******Please note that all scholarships for financial support for the conference are full.

Contact Professor Terri A. Camesano, [email protected] for informatio about the scholarships.

As for the book produced from the 2013 (?) workshop, here’s a link for purchasing,

Nanotechnology in the Security Systems (NATO Science for Peace and Security Series C: Environmental Security) Paperback – September 14, 2014 by Janez Bonca (Editor), Sergei Kruchinin (Editor)

ISBN-13: 978-9401790529 ISBN-10: 9401790523 Edition: 2015th

If you are applying for a scholarship to the 2014 workshop, good luck!

Intel’s 14nm chip: architecture revealed and scientist discusses the limits to computers

Anxieties about how much longer we can design and manufacture smaller, faster computer chips are commonplace even as companies continue to announce new, faster, smaller chips. Just before the US National Science Foundation (NSF) issued a press release concerning a Nature (journal) essay on the limits of computation, Intel announced a new microarchitecture for its 14nm chips .

First, there’s Intel. In an Aug. 12, 2014 news item on Azonano, Intel announced its newest microarchitecture optimization,

Intel today disclosed details of its newest microarchitecture that is optimized with Intel’s industry-leading 14nm manufacturing process. Together these technologies will provide high-performance and low-power capabilities to serve a broad array of computing needs and products from the infrastructure of cloud computing and the Internet of Things to personal and mobile computing.

An Aug. 11, 2014 Intel news release, which originated the news item, lists key points,

  • Intel disclosed details of the microarchitecture of the Intel® Core™ M processor, the first product to be manufactured using 14nm.
  • The combination of the new microarchitecture and manufacturing process will usher in a wave of innovation in new form factors, experiences and systems that are thinner and run silent and cool.
  • Intel architects and chip designers have achieved greater than two times reduction in the thermal design point when compared to a previous generation of processor while providing similar performance and improved battery life.
  • The new microarchitecture was optimized to take advantage of the new capabilities of the 14nm manufacturing process.
  • Intel has delivered the world’s first 14nm technology in volume production. It uses second-generation Tri-gate (FinFET) transistors with industry-leading performance, power, density and cost per transistor.
  • Intel’s 14nm technology will be used to manufacture a wide range of high-performance to low-power products including servers, personal computing devices and Internet of Things.
  • The first systems based on the Intel® Core™ M processor will be on shelves for the holiday selling season followed by broader OEM availability in the first half of 2015.
  • Additional products based on the Broadwell microarchitecture and 14nm process technology will be introduced in the coming months.

The company has made available supporting materials including videos titled, ‘Advancing Moore’s Law in 2014′, ‘Microscopic Mark Bohr: 14nm Explained’, and ‘Intel 14nm Manufacturing Process’ which can be found here. An earlier mention of Intel and its 14nm manufacturing process can be found in my July 9, 2014 posting.

Meanwhile, in a more contemplative mood, Igor Markov of the University of Michigan has written an essay for Nature questioning the limits of computation as per an Aug. 14, 2014 news item on Azonano,

From their origins in the 1940s as sequestered, room-sized machines designed for military and scientific use, computers have made a rapid march into the mainstream, radically transforming industry, commerce, entertainment and governance while shrinking to become ubiquitous handheld portals to the world.

This progress has been driven by the industry’s ability to continually innovate techniques for packing increasing amounts of computational circuitry into smaller and denser microchips. But with miniature computer processors now containing millions of closely-packed transistor components of near atomic size, chip designers are facing both engineering and fundamental limits that have become barriers to the continued improvement of computer performance.

Have we reached the limits to computation?

In a review article in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, Igor Markov of the University of Michigan reviews limiting factors in the development of computing systems to help determine what is achievable, identifying “loose” limits and viable opportunities for advancements through the use of emerging technologies. His research for this project was funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

An Aug. 13, 2014 NSF news release, which originated the news item, describes Markov’s Nature essay in greater detail,

“Just as the second law of thermodynamics was inspired by the discovery of heat engines during the industrial revolution, we are poised to identify fundamental laws that could enunciate the limits of computation in the present information age,” says Sankar Basu, a program director in NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate. “Markov’s paper revolves around this important intellectual question of our time and briefly touches upon most threads of scientific work leading up to it.”

The article summarizes and examines limitations in the areas of manufacturing and engineering, design and validation, power and heat, time and space, as well as information and computational complexity.​

“What are these limits, and are some of them negotiable? On which assumptions are they based? How can they be overcome?” asks Markov. “Given the wealth of knowledge about limits to computation and complicated relations between such limits, it is important to measure both dominant and emerging technologies against them.”

Limits related to materials and manufacturing are immediately perceptible. In a material layer ten atoms thick, missing one atom due to imprecise manufacturing changes electrical parameters by ten percent or more. Shrinking designs of this scale further inevitably leads to quantum physics and associated limits.

Limits related to engineering are dependent upon design decisions, technical abilities and the ability to validate designs. While very real, these limits are difficult to quantify. However, once the premises of a limit are understood, obstacles to improvement can potentially be eliminated. One such breakthrough has been in writing software to automatically find, diagnose and fix bugs in hardware designs.

Limits related to power and energy have been studied for many years, but only recently have chip designers found ways to improve the energy consumption of processors by temporarily turning off parts of the chip. There are many other clever tricks for saving energy during computation. But moving forward, silicon chips will not maintain the pace of improvement without radical changes. Atomic physics suggests intriguing possibilities but these are far beyond modern engineering capabilities.

Limits relating to time and space can be felt in practice. The speed of light, while a very large number, limits how fast data can travel. Traveling through copper wires and silicon transistors, a signal can no longer traverse a chip in one clock cycle today. A formula limiting parallel computation in terms of device size, communication speed and the number of available dimensions has been known for more than 20 years, but only recently has it become important now that transistors are faster than interconnections. This is why alternatives to conventional wires are being developed, but in the meantime mathematical optimization can be used to reduce the length of wires by rearranging transistors and other components.

Several key limits related to information and computational complexity have been reached by modern computers. Some categories of computational tasks are conjectured to be so difficult to solve that no proposed technology, not even quantum computing, promises consistent advantage. But studying each task individually often helps reformulate it for more efficient computation.

When a specific limit is approached and obstructs progress, understanding the assumptions made is key to circumventing it. Chip scaling will continue for the next few years, but each step forward will meet serious obstacles, some too powerful to circumvent.

What about breakthrough technologies? New techniques and materials can be helpful in several ways and can potentially be “game changers” with respect to traditional limits. For example, carbon nanotube transistors provide greater drive strength and can potentially reduce delay, decrease energy consumption and shrink the footprint of an overall circuit. On the other hand, fundamental limits–sometimes not initially anticipated–tend to obstruct new and emerging technologies, so it is important to understand them before promising a new revolution in power, performance and other factors.

“Understanding these important limits,” says Markov, “will help us to bet on the right new techniques and technologies.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for Markov’s article,

Limits on fundamental limits to computation by Igor L. Markov. Nature 512, 147–154 (14 August 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13570 Published online 13 August 2014

This paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available via ReadCube Access.

It’s a fascinating question, what are the limits? It’s one being asked not only with regard to computation but also to medicine, human enhancement, and artificial intelligence for just a few areas of endeavour.

Nominations for the 2014 John Maddox Prize (standing up for science) open ’til Aug. 20, 2014

The UK’s ‘sense about science’ organization is requesting nominations for its John Maddox Prize (or the ‘standing up for science’ prize). Its John Maddox Prize webpage provides some information about John Maddox and the prize (Note: A link has been removed),

The John Maddox Prize for standing up for science rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so. Nominations of active researchers who have yet to receive recognition for their public-interest work are particularly welcomed.

Sir John Maddox, whose name this prize commemorates, was a passionate and tireless champion and defender of science, engaging with difficult debates and inspiring others to do the same. As a writer and editor, he changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove for better understanding and appreciation of science throughout his long working life.

The judges recognise that ‘standing up for science’ is likely to be controversial in the eyes of some. The prize will be awarded for specific achievements, and the decision will be final and not open to appeal. The winner is chosen by the judging panel. …

The prize is a joint initiative of Nature, where Sir John was editor for 22 years; the Kohn Foundation, whose founder Sir Ralph Kohn was a personal friend of Sir John’s, particularly through their Fellowship of the Royal Society; and Sense About Science, where Sir John served as a trustee until his death in 2009.

As for details about the nomination process, here’s more from the 2014 John Maddox Prize webpage,

The deadline for nominations is 11:59pm on 20th August 2014 BST.

The prize is open to nominations for any kind of public activity, including all forms of writing, speaking and public engagement, in any of the following areas:

Addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues in any forum.
Bringing sound evidence to bear in a public or policy debate.
Helping people to make sense of a complex scientific issue.

The prize: £2000. The award is presented in October and an announcement of the winner will be published in Nature.

You may want to check out the 2014 nomination webpage further but the enthusiastic and/or impatient can find the nomination form here.

University of Oxford (UK)’s wider aspects of nanotechnology online course

Despite its designation as a summer school programme, this University of Oxford’s online nanotechnology course is being offered from Oct. 13 – Nov. 30, 2014. Here’s more from the University of Oxford, Dept. of Continuing Studies, The Wider Contest of Nanotechnology webpage,

Overview

Nanotechnology is the identification, application and use of novel behaviour that occurs at the nanoscale to solve real-world problems. The discipline requires a breadth of understanding that is much wider than just the equations and scientific principles that underlie that behaviour. This introductory course gives an overview of the current state of nanotechnology as well as introducing the implications of these new technologies for safety, regulation, and innovation. The course provides an overview of the societal and environmental implications of nanotechnology.

The Wider Context of Nanotechnology online course can be taken alone, with or without academic credit, or as part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Nanotechnology.

The result has been a high degree of confusion at all levels of society as to the ethics, safety and business implications of this emerging series of technologies. The course addresses these issues and others in emphasising the interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology. This is important because students who specialise in nanotechnology must be trained to appreciate a range of issues beyond the confines of pure science. Nanotechnology has applications in a broad range of fields and sectors of society. A student trained in electrical engineering, for example, who goes on to specialise in nanotechnology, may undertake a research project developing nanosensors that will be implanted in human subjects. He or she will therefore need to develop new skills to appreciate the broader ethical, societal and environmental implications of such research.

The development of interdisciplinary skills involves not only learning methods of reasoning and critical thinking, but also gaining experience with the dynamics and development of effective multi-disciplinary function. Technologists must become comfortable addressing various issues as an integral part of doing advanced research in a team that might draw upon the expertise of not only engineers, but also biologists, doctors, lawyers and business people. As the project evolves knowledge of the place of nanotechnology in business becomes increasingly important. This course teaches an understanding of the basic workings of how nanotechnology innovation is exploited, together with an understanding of the dynamics of entrepreneurship

Here are some details about the Programme Director and Tutor,

Dr Christiane Norenberg

Role: Director

Christiane is the Nanotechnology HEIF Manager at the University of Oxford’s Begbroke Science Park. She received her DPhil in Materials Science from the University of Oxford in 1998 and continued with postdoctoral research. In 2001, Christiane was awarded the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship for her work on the growth and characterisation of nanostructures on semiconductor surfaces. After a period as a lecturer at the Multidisciplinary Nanotechnology Centre at Swansea University, Christiane returned to Oxford in 2007 to take up her present post.

Her interests and expertise are in the areas of surface science, growth and characterisation of nanostructures on surfaces, and nanotechnology in general. Christiane also teaches nanoscience and materials science at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Dr Keith Simons

Role: Tutor

Dr Keith Simons, a chemist by training, is an independent innovation consultant who works as an interim manager in business development and fundraising for high-technology start-up organisations. He also works for regional, national and European governments in evaluation and monitoring of publicly-funded research. Keith is also the tutor for our first course to feature Adobe Connect Professional, the Postgraduate Certificate in Nanotechnology.

He has previously been the Business Development Manager for the Crystal Faraday Partnership, a not-for-profit organisation, backed by the British government and responsible for advancing innovation in Green Chemical Technologies for the chemical and allied industries. Prior to Crystal Faraday, he worked for Avantium Technologies in Amsterdam, a start-up company that developed high throughput technologies for the chemicals and pharmaceutical industries. This built upon his experience as development chemist at Johnson Matthey in the UK where he developed accelerated techniques for catalyst development and process optimisation for pharmaceutical manufacture.

Keith has degrees from the Universities of Hull and Liverpool. He has also performed postdoctoral research at the ETH, Zurich.

I notice Dr. Norenberg received a ‘Dorothy Hodgkin’ fellowship. Coincidentally, I mentioned a play about Dorothy Hodgkin and her friendship with Margaret Thatcher (Hodgkin’s former student and a UK Prime Minister) to be broadcast on BBC 4 later this week on Aug. 20, 2014. Scroll down about 50% of the way if you want to read my Aug. 15, 2014 posting about the play and other arts and sciences news.

Getting back to the wider implications of nanotechnology, the course fee is £2400.00 and it is possible to apply for scholarships and other financial assistance.

White beetles and complex photonic nanostructures

At least one species of white beetles which have excited scientists with their complex nanostructures are native to Southeast Asia according to an Aug. 15, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

The physical properties of the ultra-white scales on certain species of beetle could be used to make whiter paper, plastics and paints, while using far less material than is used in current manufacturing methods.

The Cyphochilus beetle, which is native to South-East Asia, is whiter than paper, thanks to ultra-thin scales which cover its body. A new investigation of the optical properties of these scales has shown that they are able to scatter light more efficiently than any other biological tissue known, which is how they are able to achieve such a bright whiteness.

An Aug. 15, 2014 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the properties needed to create the optical conditions necessary for the colour white to be seen,

Animals produce colours for several purposes, from camouflage to communication, to mating and thermoregulation. Bright colours are usually produced using pigments, which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, which our eyes then perceive as colour.

To appear as white, however, a tissue needs to reflect all wavelengths of light with the same efficiency. The ultra-white Cyphochilus and L. Stigma beetles produce this colouration by exploiting the geometry of a dense complex network of chitin – a molecule similar in structure to cellulose, which is found throughout nature, including in the shells of molluscs, the exoskeletons of insects and the cell walls of fungi. The chitin filaments are just a few billionths of a metre thick, and on their own are not particularly good at reflecting light.

The research, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the European Laboratory for non-Linear Spectroscopy in Italy has shown that the beetles have optimised their internal structure in order to produce maximum white with minimum material, like a painter who needs to whiten a wall with a very small quantity of paint. This efficiency is particularly important for insects that fly, as it makes them lighter.

Here’s what the Cyphochilus beetle looks like,

Cyphochilus beetle Credit: Lorenzo Cortese and Silvia Vignolini

Cyphochilus beetle Credit: Lorenzo Cortese and Silvia Vignolini Courtesy University of Cambridge

The press release goes on to describe the beetle’s optical properties in greater detail,

Over millions of years of evolution the beetles have developed a compressed network of chitin filaments. This network is directionally-dependent, or anisotropic, which allows high intensities of reflected light for all colours at the same time, resulting in a very intense white with very little material.

“Current technology is not able to produce a coating as white as these beetles can in such a thin layer,” said Dr Silvia Vignolini of the University’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research. “In order to survive, these beetles need to optimise their optical response but this comes with the strong constraint of using as little material as possible in order to save energy and to keep the scales light enough in order to fly. Curiously, these beetles succeed in this task using chitin, which has a relatively low refractive index.”

The secret lies in the beetles’ nanostructures,

Exactly how this could be possible remained unclear up to now. The researchers studied how light propagates in the white scales, quantitatively measuring their scattering strength for the first time and demonstrating that they scatter light more efficiently than any other low-refractive-index material yet known.

“These scales have a structure that is truly complex since it gives rise to something that is more than the sum of its parts,” said co-author Dr Matteo Burresi of the Italian National Institute of Optics in Florence. “Our simulations show that a randomly packed collection of its constituent elements by itself is not sufficient to achieve the degree of brightness that we observe.”

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

Bright-White Beetle Scales Optimise Multiple Scattering of Light by Matteo Burresi, Lorenzo Cortese, Lorenzo Pattelli, Mathias Kolle, Peter Vukusic, Diederik S. Wiersma, Ullrich Steiner, & Silvia Vignolini.  Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 6075 doi:10.1038/srep06075 Published 15 August 2014

This paper is open access.

Science and the arts: a science rap promotes civil discussion about science and religion; a science movie and a play; and a chemistry article about authenticating a Lawren Harris painting

Canadian-born rapper of science and many other topics, Baba Brinkman sent me an update about his current doings (first mentioned in an Aug. 1, 2014 posting featuring his appearances at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, his Rap Guide to Religion being debuted at the Fringe, and his Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the creation of an animated rap album of his news Rap Guide to Religion), Note: Links have been removed,

Greetings from Edinburgh! In the past two and half weeks I’ve done fifteen performances of The Rap Guide to Religion for a steadily building audience here at the Fringe, and we recently had a whole pile of awesome reviews published, which I will excerpt below, but first a funny story.

Yesterday [August 14, 2014] BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] Sunday Morning TV was in to film my performance. They had a scheme to send a right wing conservative Christian to the show and then film us having an argument afterwards. The man they sent certainly has the credentials. Reverend George Hargreaves is a Pentecostal Minister and former leader of the UK Christian Party, as well as a young earth creationist and strong opponent of abortion and homosexuality. He led the protests that got “Jerry Springer the Opera” shut down in London a few years back, and is on record as saying that religion is not an appropriate subject for comedy. Before he converted to Christianity, the man was also a DJ and producer of pop music for the London gay scene, interesting background.

So after an hour of cracking jokes at religion’s expense, declaring myself an unapologetic atheist, and explaining why evolutionary science gives a perfectly satisfying naturalistic account of where religion comes from, I sat down with Reverend George and was gobsmacked when he started the interview with: “I don’t know if we’re going to have anything to debate about… I LOVED your show!” We talked for half an hour with the cameras rolling and at one point George said “I don’t know what we disagree about,” so I asked him: “Do you think one of your ancestors was a fish?” He declared that statement a fishy story and denied it, and then we found much to disagree about.

I honestly thought I had written a hard-hitting, provocative and controversial show, but it turns out the religious are loving it as much as the nonbelievers – and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I asked Reverend George why he wasn’t offended, even though he’s officially against comedy that targets religion, and he told me it’s because I take the religious worldview seriously, instead of lazily dismissing it as delusional. The key word here is “lazily” rather than “delusional” because I don’t pull punches about religion being a series of delusions, but I don’t think those delusions are pointless. I think they have evolved (culturally and genetically) to solve adaptive problems in the past, and for religious people accustomed to atheists being derisive and dismissive that’s a (semi) validating perspective.

To listen to songs from The Rap Guide to Religion, you need to back my Kickstarter campaign so I can raise the money to produce a proper record. To check out what the critics here in Edinburgh have to say about my take on religion, read on. And if you want to help organize a gig somewhere, just let me know. The show is open for bookings.

On Sunday Morning [August 17, 2014 GMT] my segment with Reverend George will air on BBC One, so we’ll see what a million British people think of the debate.

All the best from the religious fringe,

Baba

Here’s a link to the BBC One Sunday Morning Live show, where hopefully you’ll be able to catch the segment featuring Baba and Reverend George Hargreaves either livestreamed or shortly thereafter.

A science movie and a science play

Onto the science movie and the play: David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog writes about two upcoming movie biopics featuring Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking respectively, in an Aug. 8, 2014 posting. Having covered the Turing movie here (at length) in a July 22, 2014 posting here’s the new information about the Hawking movie from David’s Aug, 8, 2014 posting,

Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking are noted British scientists, well recognized for their work and for having faced significant challenges in their lives.  While they were in different fields and productive in different parts of the 20th century (Hawking is still with us), their stories will compete in movieplexes (at least in the U.S.) this November.

The Theory of Everything is scheduled for release on November 7 and focuses on the early career and life of Hawking.  He’s portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, and the film is directed by James Marsh.  Marsh has several documentaries to his credit, including the Oscar-winning Man on Wire.  Theory is the third film project on Hawking since 2004, but the first to get much attention outside of the United Kingdom (this might explain why it won’t debut in the U.K. until New Year’s Day).  It premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next month [Sept. 2014].

David features some trailers for both movies and additional information.

Interestingly the science play focuses on the friendship between a female UK scientist and her former student, Margaret Thatcher (a UK Prime Minister). From an Aug. 13, 2014 Alice Bell posting on the Guardian science blog network (Note: Links have been removed),

Adam Ganz’s new play – The Chemistry Between Them, to be broadcast on Radio 4 this month – explores one of the most intriguing friendships in the history of science and politics: Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin.

As well as winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering scientific work on the structures of proteins, Hodgkin was a left-wing peace campaigner who was awarded the Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Order of Lenin. Hardly Thatcher’s type, you might think. But Hodgkin was Thatcher’s tutor at university, and the relationships between science, politics and women in high office are anything but straightforward.

I spoke to Ganz about his interest in the subject, and started by asking him to tell us more about the play.

… they stayed friends throughout Dorothy’s life. Margaret Thatcher apparently had a photo of Dorothy Hodgkin in Downing Street, and they maintained a kind of warm relationship. The play happens in two timescales – one is a meeting in 1983 in Chequers where Dorothy came to plead with Margaret to take nuclear disarmament more seriously at a time when Cruise missiles and SS20s were being stationed in Europe. In fact I’ve set it – I’m not sure of the exact date – shortly after the Korean airliner was shot down, when the Russians feared Nato were possibly planning a first strike. And that is intercut with the time when Margaret is studying chemistry and looking at her journey; what she learned at Somerville, but especially what she learned from Dorothy.

Here’s a link to the BBC 4 webpage for The Chemistry Between Them. I gather the broadcast will be Weds., Aug. 20, 2014 at 1415 hours GMT.

Chemistry and authentication of a Lawren Harris painting

The final item for this posting concerns Canadian art, chemistry, and the quest to prove the authenticity of a painting. Roberta Staley, editor of Canadian Chemical News (ACCN), has written a concise technical story about David Robertson’s quest to authenticate a painting he purchased some years ago,

Fourteen years ago, David Robertson of Delta, British Columbia was holidaying in Ontario when he stopped at a small antique shop in the community of Bala, two hours north of Toronto in cottage country. An unsigned 1912 oil painting caught his attention. Thinking it evocative of a Group of Seven painting, Robertson paid the asking price of $280 and took it home to hang above his fireplace.

Roberta has very kindly made it available as a PDF: ChemistryNews_Art.Mystery.Group.7. It will also be available online at the Canadian Chemical News website soon. (It’s not in the July/August 2014 issue.)

For anyone who might recognize the topic, I wrote a sprawling five-part series (over 5000 words) on the story starting with part one. Roberta’s piece is 800 words and offers her  account of the tests for both Autumn Harbour and the authentic Harris painting, Hurdy Gurdy. I was able to attend only one of them (Autumn Harbour).

David William Robertson, Autumn Harbour’s owner has recently (I received a notice on Aug. 13, 2014) updated his website with all of the scientific material and points of authentication that he feels prove his case.

Have a very nice weekend!

Nanotechnology, tobacco plants, and the Ebola virus

Before presenting information about the current Ebola crisis and issues with vaccines and curatives, here’s a description of the disease from its Wikipedia entry,

Ebola virus disease (EVD) or Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF) is a disease of humans and other primates caused by an ebola virus. Symptoms start two days to three weeks after contracting the virus, with a fever, sore throat, muscle pain, and headaches. Typically nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea follow, along with decreased functioning of the liver and kidneys. Around this time, affected people may begin to bleed both within the body and externally. [1]

As for the current crisis in countries situated on the west coast of the African continent, there’s this from an Aug. 14, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

The outbreak of Ebola virus disease that has claimed more than 1,000 lives in West Africa this year poses a serious, ongoing threat to that region: the spread to capital cities and Nigeria — Africa’s most populous nation — presents new challenges for healthcare professionals. The situation has garnered significant attention and fear around the world, but proven public health measures and sharpened clinical vigilance will contain the epidemic and thwart a global spread, according to a new commentary by Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Fauci’s Aug. 13, 2014 commentary (open access) in the New England Journal of Medicine provides more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

An outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) has jolted West Africa, claiming more than 1000 lives since the virus emerged in Guinea in early 2014 (see figure) Ebola Virus Cases and Deaths in West Africa (Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone), as of August 11, 2014 (Panel A), and Over Time (Panel B).). The rapidly increasing numbers of cases in the African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have had public health authorities on high alert throughout the spring and summer. More recent events including the spread of EVD to Nigeria (Africa’s most populous country) and the recent evacuation to the United States of two American health care workers with EVD have captivated the world’s attention and concern. Health professionals and the general public are struggling to comprehend these unfolding dynamics and to separate misinformation and speculation from truth.

In early 2014, EVD emerged in a remote region of Guinea near its borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia. Since then, the epidemic has grown dramatically, fueled by several factors. First, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are resource-poor countries already coping with major health challenges, such as malaria and other endemic diseases, some of which may be confused with EVD. Next, their borders are porous, and movement between countries is constant. Health care infrastructure is inadequate, and health workers and essential supplies including personal protective equipment are scarce. Traditional practices, such as bathing of corpses before burial, have facilitated transmission. The epidemic has spread to cities, which complicates tracing of contacts. Finally, decades of conflict have left the populations distrustful of governing officials and authority figures such as health professionals. Add to these problems a rapidly spreading virus with a high mortality rate, and the scope of the challenge becomes clear.

Although the regional threat of Ebola in West Africa looms large, the chance that the virus will establish a foothold in the United States or another high-resource country remains extremely small. Although global air transit could, and most likely will, allow an infected, asymptomatic person to board a plane and unknowingly carry Ebola virus to a higher-income country, containment should be readily achievable. Hospitals in such countries generally have excellent capacity to isolate persons with suspected cases and to care for them safely should they become ill. Public health authorities have the resources and training necessary to trace and monitor contacts. Protocols exist for the appropriate handling of corpses and disposal of biohazardous materials. In addition, characteristics of the virus itself limit its spread. Numerous studies indicate that direct contact with infected bodily fluids — usually feces, vomit, or blood — is necessary for transmission and that the virus is not transmitted from person to person through the air or by casual contact. Isolation procedures have been clearly outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A high index of suspicion, proper infection-control practices, and epidemiologic investigations should quickly limit the spread of the virus.

Fauci’s article makes it clear that public concerns are rising in the US and I imagine that’s true of Canada too and many other parts of the world, not to mention the countries currently experiencing the EVD outbreak. In the midst of all this comes a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning as per an Aug. 15, 2014 news item (originated by Reuters reporter Toni Clarke) on Nanowerk,

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday [Aug. 14, 2014] it has become aware of products being sold online that fraudulently claim to prevent or treat Ebola.

The FDA’s warning comes on the heels of comments by Nigeria’s top health official, Onyebuchi Chukwu, who reportedly said earlier Thursday [Aug. 14, 2014] that eight Ebola patients in Lagos, the country’s capital, will receive an experimental treatment containing nano-silver.

Erica Jefferson, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said she could not provide any information about the product referenced by the Nigerians.

The Aug. 14,  2014 FDA warning reads in part,

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is advising consumers to be aware of products sold online claiming to prevent or treat the Ebola virus. Since the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, the FDA has seen and received consumer complaints about a variety of products claiming to either prevent the Ebola virus or treat the infection.

There are currently no FDA-approved vaccines or drugs to prevent or treat Ebola. Although there are experimental Ebola vaccines and treatments under development, these investigational products are in the early stages of product development, have not yet been fully tested for safety or effectiveness, and the supply is very limited. There are no approved vaccines, drugs, or investigational products specifically for Ebola available for purchase on the Internet. By law, dietary supplements cannot claim to prevent or cure disease.

As per the FDA’s reference to experimental vaccines, an Aug. 6, 2014 article by Caroline Chen, Mark Niquette, Mark Langreth, and Marie French for Bloomberg describes the ZMapp vaccine/treatment (Note: Links have been removed),

On a small plot of land incongruously tucked amid a Kentucky industrial park sit five weather-beaten greenhouses. At the site, tobacco plants contain one of the most promising hopes for developing an effective treatment for the deadly Ebola virus.

The plants contain designer antibodies developed by San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. and are grown in Kentucky by a unit of Reynolds American Inc. Two stricken U.S. health workers received an experimental treatment containing the antibodies in Liberia last week. Since receiving doses of the drug, both patients’ conditions have improved.

Tobacco plant-derived medicines, which are also being developed by a company whose investors include Philip Morris International Inc., are part of a handful of cutting edge plant-based treatments that are in the works for everything from pandemic flu to rabies using plants such as lettuce, carrots and even duckweed. While the technique has existed for years, the treatments have only recently begun to reach the marketplace.

Researchers try to identify the best antibodies in the lab, before testing them on mice, then eventually on monkeys. Mapp’s experimental drug, dubbed ZMapp, has three antibodies, which work together to alert the immune system and neutralize the Ebola virus, she [Erica Ollman Saphire, a molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute,] said.

This is where the tobacco comes in: the plants are used as hosts to grow large amounts of the antibodies. Genes for the desired antibodies are fused to genes for a natural tobacco virus, Charles Arntzen, a plant biotechnology expert at Arizona State University, said in an Aug. 4 [2014] telephone interview.

The tobacco plants are then infected with this new artificial virus, and antibodies are grown inside the plant. Eventually, the tobacco is ground up and the antibody is extracted, Arntzen said.

The process of growing antibodies in mammals risks transferring viruses that could infect humans, whereas “plants are so far removed, so if they had some sort of plant virus we wouldn’t get sick because viruses are host-specific,” said Qiang Chen, a plant biologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, in a telephone interview.

There is a Canadian (?) company working on a tobacco-based vaccines including one for EVD but as the Bloomberg writers note the project is highly secret,

Another tobacco giant-backed company working on biotech drugs grown in tobacco plants is Medicago Inc. in Quebec City, which is owned by Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corp. and Philip Morris. [emphasis mine]

Medicago is working on testing a vaccine for pandemic influenza and has a production greenhouse facility in North Carolina, said Jean-Luc Martre, senior director for government affairs at Medicago. Medicago is planning a final stage trial of the pandemic flu vaccine for next year, he said in a telephone interview.

The plant method is flexible and capable of making antibodies and vaccines for numerous types of viruses, said Martre. In addition to influenza, the company’s website says it is in early stages of testing products for rabies and rotavirus.

Medicago ‘‘is currently closely working with partners for the production of an Ebola antibody as well as other antibodies that are of interest for bio-defense,” he said in an e-mail. He would not disclose who the partners were. [emphasis mine]

I have checked both the English and French language versions of Medicago’s website and cannot find any information about their work on ebola. (The Bloomberg article provides a good overview of the ebola situation and more. I recommend reading it and/or the Aug. 15, 2014 posting on CTV [Canadian Television Network] which originated from an Associated Press article by Malcolm Ritter).

Moving on to more research and ebola, Dexter Johnson in an Aug. 14, 2014 posting (on his Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website,) describes some work from Northeastern University (US), Note: Links have been removed,

With the Ebola virus death toll now topping 1000 and even the much publicized experimental treatment ZMapp failing to save the life of a Spanish missionary priest who was treated with it, it is clear that scientists need to explore new ways of fighting the deadly disease. For researchers at Northeastern University in Boston, one possibility may be using nanotechnology.

“It has been very hard to develop a vaccine or treatment for Ebola or similar viruses because they mutate so quickly,” said Thomas Webster, the chair of Northeastern’s chemical engineering department, in a press release. “In nanotechnology we turned our attention to developing nanoparticles that could be attached chemically to the viruses and stop them from spreading.”

Webster, along with many researchers in the nanotechnology community, have been trying to use gold nanoparticles, in combination with near-infrared light, to kill cancer cells with heat. The hope is that the same approach could be used to kill the Ebola virus.

There is also an Aug. 6, 2014 Northeastern University news release by Joe O’Connell describing the technique being used by Webster’s team,

… According to Web­ster, gold nanopar­ti­cles are cur­rently being used to treat cancer. Infrared waves, he explained, heat up the gold nanopar­ti­cles, which, in turn, attack and destroy every­thing from viruses to cancer cells, but not healthy cells.

Rec­og­nizing that a larger sur­face area would lead to a quicker heat-​​up time, Webster’s team cre­ated gold nanos­tars. “The star has a lot more sur­face area, so it can heat up much faster than a sphere can,” Web­ster said. “And that greater sur­face area allows it to attack more viruses once they absorb to the par­ti­cles.” The problem the researchers face, how­ever, is making sure the hot gold nanopar­ti­cles attack the virus or cancer cells rather than the healthy cells.

At this point, there don’t seem to be any curative measures generally available although some are available experimentally in very small quantities.

Nanotechnology announcements: a new book and a new report

Two quick announcements. The first concerns a forthcoming book to be published in March 2015. Titled, Nanotechnology Law & Guidelines: A Practical Guide for the Nanotechnology Industries in Europe, the book is featured in an Aug. 15, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

The book is a concise guideline to different issues of nanotechnology in the European Legislation.- It offers an extensive review of all European Patent Office (EPO) cases on nanotechnological inventions. The challenge for new nanotechnology patents is to determine how patent criteria could be met in a patent application. This book shows how to identify the approach and the ways to cope with this challenge.

More about the book and purchasing options can be found on the publisher’s (Springer) Nanotechnology Law & Guidelines webpage,

[Table of Contents:]

Introduction.- Part I Nanotechnology from Research to Manufacture: The legal framework of the nanotechnology research and development.- Structuring the research and development of nanotechnologies.- Manufacturing nanotechnologies.-

Part II Protecting Nanotechnological Inventions: A Matter of Strategy : Trade Secrets vs. Patents and Utility Models.- Trade Secrets and Nanotechnologies.- International, European or National Patent for Nanotechnological Inventions ?- Nanotechnology Patents and Novelty.- Nanotechnology Patents and the Inventive Step.- Nanotechnology Patents and the Industrial Application.- Drafting Nanotechnology Patents Applications.- Utility Models as Alternative Means for Protecting Nanotechnological Inventions.- Copyright, Databases and Designs in the Nano Industry.- Managing and Transferring Nanotechnology Intellectual Property.-

Part III Nanotechnologies Investment and Finance.- Corporate Law and the nanotechnology industry.- Tax Law for the nanotechnology industry.- Investing and financing a nanotechnological project.-

Part IV Marketing Nanotechnologies.- Authorization and Registration Systems.- Product Safety and Liability.- Advertising “Nano”.- “Nano” Trademarks.- Importing and Exporting Nanotechnologies. Annexes: Analytic Table of EPO Cases on Nanotechnologies.- Analytic Table of National Cases on Nanotechnologies.- Analytic Table of OHIM Cases on Nano Trademarks.

I was able to find some information about the author, Anthony Bochon on his University of Stanford (where he is a Fellow) biography page,

Anthony Bochon is an associate in a Brussels-based law firm, an associate lecturer in EU Law & Trade Law/IP Law at the Université libre de Bruxelles and a lecturer in EU Law at the Brussels Business Institute. He is an associate researcher at the unit of Economic Law of the Faculty of Law of the Université libre de Bruxelles. Anthony graduated magna cum laude from the Université libre de Bruxelles in 2010 and received a year later an LL.M. from the University of Cambridge where he studied EU Law, WTO Law and IP Law. He has published on topics such as biotechnological patents, EU trade law and antitrust law since 2008. Anthony is also the author of the first European website devoted to the emerging legal area of nanotechnology law, a field about which he writes frequently and speaks regularly at international conferences. His legal practice is mainly focussed on EU Law, competition law and regulatory issues and he has a strong and relevant experience in IP/IT Law. He devotes his current research to EU and U.S. trade secrets law. Anthony has been a TTLF Fellow since June 2013.

On a completely other note and in the more recent future, there’s a report about the US National Nanotechnology Initiative to be released Aug. 28, 2014 as per David Bruggeman’s Aug. 14. 2014 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog, (Note: A link has been removed)

On August 28 PCAST [President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] will hold a public conference call in connection with the release of two new reports.  One will be a review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (periodically required by law) … .

The call runs from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Eastern.  Registration is required, and closes at noon Eastern on the 26th..

That’s it for nanotechnology announcements today (Aug. 15, 2014).

Bespoke (custom made) carbon nanotubes

Researchers have found a way to create single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) that  are consistent and, hopefully, designed for specific applications if I’m reading the research rightly, (I have an embedded video in a March 15, 2013 posting which illustrates some of the issues with producing carbon nanotubes.) Getting back to this latest research, it suggests that we could order SWCNTs-on-demand. An Aug. 14, 2014 news item on Azonano provides more insight,

In future, it will be possible to specifically equip carbon nanotubes with properties which they need for electronic applications, for example. Researchers at Empa in Dübendorf/Switzerland and the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart [Germany] have succeeded for the first time in growing single-walled carbon nanotubes (CNTs) with only a single, prespecified structure.

The nanotubes thereby have identical electronic properties. The decisive trick here: The team has taken up an idea which originated from the Stuttgart-based Max Planck researchers and produced the CNT from custom-made organic precursor molecules. The researchers started with these precursor molecules and have built up the nanotubes on a platinum surface, as they report in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature. Such CNTs could be used in future, for instance, in ultra-sensitive light detectors and very tiny transistors.

An Aug. 13, 2014 Max Planck Institute press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

For 20 years, material scientists working on the development of carbon nanotubes for a range of applications have been battling a problem – now an elegant solution is at hand. With their unusual mechanical, thermal and electronic properties, the tiny tubes with their honeycomb lattice of graphitic carbon have become the embodiment of nanomaterials. They could be used to manufacture the next generation of electronic and electro-optical components so that they are even smaller and with even faster switching times than before. But to achieve this, the material scientists must specifically equip the nanotubes with desired properties, and these depend on their structure. The production methods used to date, however, always result in a mixture of different CNTs. The team from Empa  and the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research has now remedied the situation with a new production path for single-walled nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes with the best possible varietal purity are in demand

With a diameter of around one nanometre, single-walled CNTs (SWCNTs) are deemed to be quantum structures; very tiny structural differences, in the diameter, for example, or in the orientation of the atomic lattice, can dramatically change the electronic properties: one SWCNT can be a metal, while one with a slightly different structure is semi-conducting. Correspondingly great is the interest in reliable methods for producing SWCNTs with the best possible varietal purity. Researchers working with Martin Jansen, Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research, have been pursuing suitable concepts for the synthesis for ten years. But it is only now that the surface physicists at Empa and the chemists at the Stuttgart-based Max Planck Institute have succeeded in implementing one of these ideas in the laboratory. The researchers allowed structurally identical SWCNTs to grow on a platinum surface in a self-organised process and were able to unambiguously define their electronic properties.

The Max Planck research team headed by Martin Jansen had the idea of starting with small precursor molecules to synthesise carbon nanotubes. They felt it should be possible to achieve controlled conversion of the precursor molecules into a cap which acts as the seed for a SWCNT and thus unambiguously specify the structure of the nanotube. With this concept, they approached the Empa team working with Roman Fasel, head of Empa’s «nanotech@surfaces» department and titular professor at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry of the University of Bern. This group has already been working for some time on how molecules on a surface can be converted or combined into complex nanostructures according to the principle of molecular self-organisation. “The challenge now consists in finding the right precursor molecule which would actually grow on a smooth surface,” says Roman Fasel. This was ultimately achieved by Andreas Mueller and Konstantin Amsharov from the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart with the synthesis of a hydrocarbon molecule from a not-inconsiderable 150 atoms.

Molecular origami on the platinum surface

What exactly is the process in which the carbon nanotube forms? In the first step, the flat precursor molecule must – as is the case in origami – convert into a three-dimensional object, the seed. This takes place on a hot platinum surface with the aid of a catalytic reaction, whereby hydrogen atoms split off from the precursor molecule and form new carbon-carbon bonds at very specific positions. The seed folds up from the flat molecule: a tiny, domed shape with open rim, which sits on the platinum surface. This so-called end cap forms the top of the growing SWCNT.

In a second chemical process, further carbon atoms, which are formed during the catalytic decomposition of ethanol on the platinum surface, are taken up. They deposit on the open rim between end cap and platinum surface and lift the cap higher and higher; the tube slowly grows upwards. The atomic structure of the nanotube is determined solely by the shape of the seed. The researchers proved this by analysing the vibrational modes of the SWCNTs and taking measurements with the scanning tunnelling microscope. Further investigations at Empa showed that the SWCNTs produced were over 300 nanometres in length.

Different nanotubes are formed from suitable precursor molecules

The researchers have thus proved that they can unambiguously specify the growth and thus the structure of long SWCNTs using custom-made molecular seeds. The SWCNTs synthesised in this study can exist in two forms, which correspond to an object and its mirror image. By choosing the precursor molecule appropriately, the researchers were able to influence which of the two variants forms. Depending on how the honeycomb atomic lattice is derived from the original molecule – straight or oblique with respect to the CNT axis – it is also possible for helically wound tubes, i.e. with right- or left-handed rotation, and with non-mirror symmetry to form. And it is precisely this structure that then determines which electronic, thermo-electric and optical properties of the material. In principle, the researchers can therefore specifically produce materials with different properties through their choice of precursor molecule.

In further steps, Roman Fasel and his colleagues want to gain an even better understanding of how SWCNTs establish themselves on a surface. Even if well in excess of 100 million nanotubes per square centimetre already grow on the platinum surface, only a relatively small fraction of the seeds actually develop into «mature» nanotubes. The question remains as to which processes are responsible for this, and how the yield can be increased.

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

Controlled synthesis of single-chirality carbon nanotubes by Juan Ramon Sanchez-Valencia, Thomas Dienel, Oliver Gröning, Ivan Shorubalko, Andreas Mueller, Martin Jansen, Konstantin Amsharov, Pascal Ruffieux, & Roman Fasel. Nature 512, 61–64 (07 August 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13607

Published online 06 August 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Shape-shifting bone material

Mammals of all kind have a horror disfigurement and will avoid members of their group who are disfigured. This horror is one of the themes to be found in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Despite the difficulties, Roger Ebert (film critic) continued to make public appearances after cancer surgeries that changed his appearance (from a June 27, 2012 article by Ronni Gordon for Cancer Today),

Facing the Critics
Roger Ebert finds peace with his appearance following disfiguring cancer surgery

“Today I look like an exhibit in the Texas Chainsaw Museum,” he muses in his 2011 memoir, Life Itself. But Ebert decided he wasn’t going to hide the way he looks. In 2007, before attending his annual Overlooked Film Festival, now referred to as Ebertfest, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, decided that a photograph of him should accompany a story he wrote for the Sun-Times. Later, he posed for a full-page photo that appeared in Esquire in March 2010.

“No point in denying it,” he wrote about his appearance in Life Itself. “No way to hide it. Better for it to be out there.”

Given the difficulties most people experience, researchers are eager to find solutions. An Aug. 13, 2014 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert) describes a presentation at the ACS 284h meeting about shape-shifting material that could be used to ameliorate bone defects,

Injuries, birth defects (such as cleft palates) or surgery to remove a tumor can create gaps in bone that are too large to heal naturally. And when they occur in the head, face or jaw, these bone defects can dramatically alter a person’s appearance. Researchers will report today that they have developed a “self-fitting” material that expands with warm salt water to precisely fill bone defects, and also acts as a scaffold for new bone growth.

Currently, the most common method for filling bone defects in the head, face or jaw (known as the cranio-maxillofacial area) is autografting. That is a process in which surgeons harvest bone from elsewhere in the body, such as the hip bone, and then try to shape it to fit the bone defect.

“The problem is that the autograft is a rigid material that is very difficult to shape into these irregular defects,” says Melissa Grunlan, Ph.D., leader of the study. Also, harvesting bone for the autograft can itself create complications at the place where the bone was taken.

Another approach is to use bone putty or cement to plug gaps. However, these materials aren’t ideal. They become very brittle when they harden, and they lack pores, or small holes, that would allow new bone cells to move in and rebuild the damaged tissue.

To develop a better material, Grunlan and her colleagues at Texas A&M University made a shape-memory polymer (SMP) that molds itself precisely to the shape of the bone defect without being brittle. It also supports the growth of new bone tissue.

SMPs are materials whose geometry changes in response to heat. The team made a porous SMP foam by linking together molecules of poly(ε-caprolactone), an elastic, biodegradable substance that is already used in some medical implants. The resulting material resembled a stiff sponge, with many interconnected pores to allow bone cells to migrate in and grow.

Upon heating to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the SMP becomes very soft and malleable. So, during surgery to repair a bone defect, a surgeon could warm the SMP to that temperature and fill in the defect with the softened material. Then, as the SMP is cooled to body temperature (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it would resume its former stiff texture and “lock” into place.

The researchers also coated the SMPs with polydopamine, a sticky substance that helps lock the polymer into place by inducing formation of a mineral that is found in bone. It may also help osteoblasts, the cells that produce bone, to adhere and spread throughout the polymer. The SMP is biodegradable, so that eventually the scaffold will disappear, leaving only new bone tissue behind.

To test whether the SMP scaffold could support bone cell growth, the researchers seeded the polymer with human osteoblasts. After three days, the polydopamine-coated SMPs had grown about five times more osteoblasts than those without a coating. Furthermore, the osteoblasts produced more of the two proteins, runX2 and osteopontin, that are critical for new bone formation.

Grunlan says that the next step will be to test the SMP’s ability to heal cranio-maxillofacial bone defects in animals. “The work we’ve done in vitro is very encouraging,” she says. “Now we’d like to move this into preclinical and, hopefully, clinical studies.”

The researchers acknowledge funding from the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station.

It sounds like there’s still quite a long way to go before this research makes its way out of the laboratory. I wish the researchers all the best.