Tag Archives: École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Gold on the brain, a possible nanoparticle delivery system for drugs

A July 21, 2014 news item on Nanowerk describes special gold nanoparticles that could make drug delivery to cells easier,

A special class of tiny gold particles can easily slip through cell membranes, making them good candidates to deliver drugs directly to target cells.

A new study from MIT materials scientists reveals that these nanoparticles enter cells by taking advantage of a route normally used in vesicle-vesicle fusion, a crucial process that allows signal transmission between neurons.

A July 21, 2014 MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

The findings suggest possible strategies for designing nanoparticles — made from gold or other materials — that could get into cells even more easily.

“We’ve identified a type of mechanism that might be more prevalent than is currently known,” says Reid Van Lehn, an MIT graduate student in materials science and engineering and one of the paper’s lead authors. “By identifying this pathway for the first time it also suggests not only how to engineer this particular class of nanoparticles, but that this pathway might be active in other systems as well.”

The paper’s other lead author is Maria Ricci of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. The research team, led by Alfredo Alexander-Katz, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and Francesco Stellacci from EPFL, also included scientists from the Carlos Besta Institute of Neurology in Italy and Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Most nanoparticles enter cells through endocytosis, a process that traps the particles in intracellular compartments, which can damage the cell membrane and cause cell contents to leak out. However, in 2008, Stellacci, who was then at MIT, and Darrell Irvine, a professor of materials science and engineering and of biological engineering, found that a special class of gold nanoparticles coated with a mix of molecules could enter cells without any disruption.

“Why this was happening, or how this was happening, was a complete mystery,” Van Lehn says.

Last year, Alexander-Katz, Van Lehn, Stellacci, and others discovered that the particles were somehow fusing with cell membranes and being absorbed into the cells. In their new study, they created detailed atomistic simulations to model how this happens, and performed experiments that confirmed the model’s predictions.

Gold nanoparticles used for drug delivery are usually coated with a thin layer of molecules that help tune their chemical properties. Some of these molecules, or ligands, are negatively charged and hydrophilic, while the rest are hydrophobic. The researchers found that the particles’ ability to enter cells depends on interactions between hydrophobic ligands and lipids found in the cell membrane.

Cell membranes consist of a double layer of phospholipid molecules, which have hydrophobic lipid tails and hydrophilic heads. The lipid tails face in toward each other, while the hydrophilic heads face out.

In their computer simulations, the researchers first created what they call a “perfect bilayer,” in which all of the lipid tails stay in place within the membrane. Under these conditions, the researchers found that the gold nanoparticles could not fuse with the cell membrane.

However, if the model membrane includes a “defect” — an opening through which lipid tails can slip out — nanoparticles begin to enter the membrane. When these lipid protrusions occur, the lipids and particles cling to each other because they are both hydrophobic, and the particles are engulfed by the membrane without damaging it.

In real cell membranes, these protrusions occur randomly, especially near sites where proteins are embedded in the membrane. They also occur more often in curved sections of membrane, because it’s harder for the hydrophilic heads to fully cover a curved area than a flat one, leaving gaps for the lipid tails to protrude.

“It’s a packing problem,” Alexander-Katz says. “There’s open space where tails can come out, and there will be water contact. It just makes it 100 times more probable to have one of these protrusions come out in highly curved regions of the membrane.”

This phenomenon appears to mimic a process that occurs naturally in cells — the fusion of vesicles with the cell membrane. Vesicles are small spheres of membrane-like material that carry cargo such as neurotransmitters or hormones.

The similarity between absorption of vesicles and nanoparticle entry suggests that cells where a lot of vesicle fusion naturally occurs could be good targets for drug delivery by gold nanoparticles. The researchers plan to further analyze how the composition of the membranes and the proteins embedded in them influence the absorption process in different cell types. “We want to really understand all the constraints and determine how we can best design nanoparticles to target particular cell types, or regions of a cell,” Van Lehn says.

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

Lipid tail protrusions mediate the insertion of nanoparticles into model cell membranes by Reid C. Van Lehn, Maria Ricci, Paulo H.J. Silva, Patrizia Andreozzi, Javier Reguera, Kislon Voïtchovsky, Francesco Stellacci, & Alfredo Alexander-Katz. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4482 doi:10.1038/ncomms5482 Published 21 July 2014

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

I last featured this multi-country team’s work on gold nanoparticles in an Aug. 23, 2013 posting.

A complete medical checkup in a stapler-sized laboratory

I find this device strangely attractive,

© 2014 EPFL

A March 4, 2014 news item on Azonano provides more information,

About the size of a stapler, this new handheld device developed at EFPL [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne] is able to test a large number of proteins in our body all at once-a subtle combination of optical science and engineering.

Could it be possible one day to do a complete checkup without a doctor’s visit? EPFL’s latest discovery is headed in that direction. Professor Hatice Altug and postoctoral fellow Arif Cetin, in collaboration with Prof. Aydogan Ozcan from UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles], have developed an “optical lab on a chip.” Compact and inexpensive, it could offer to quickly analyze up to 170,000 different molecules in a blood sample. This method could simultaneously identify insulin levels, cancer and Alzheimer markers, or even certain viruses. “We were looking to build an interface similar to a car’s dashboard, which is able to indicate gas and oil levels as well as let you know if your headlights are on or if your engine is working correctly,” explains Altug.

A March 3, 2014 EPFL news release, which originated the news item, describes the technique and the device in detail,

Nanoholes on the gold substrates are compartmented into arrays of different sections, where each section functions as an independent sensor. Sensors are coated with special biofilms that are specifically attracting targeted proteins. Consequently, multiple different proteins in the biosamples could be captured at different places on the platform and monitored simultaneously.

The diode then allows for detection of the trapped proteins almost immediately. The light shines on the platform, passes through the nano-openings and its properties are recorded onto the CMOS chip. Since light going through the nanoscaled holes changes its properties depending on the presence of biomolecules, it is possible to easily deduce the number of particles trapped on the sensors.

Laboratories normally observe the difference between the original wavelength and the resulting one, but this requires using bulky spectrometers. Hatice Altug’s ingenuity consists in choosing to ignore the light’s wavelength, or spectrum, and focus on changes in the light’s intensity instead. This method is possible by tuning into the “surface plasmonic resonance” – the collective oscillation of electrons when in contact with light. And this oscillation is very different depending on the presence or absence of a particular protein. Then, the CMOS chip only needs to record the intensity of the oscillation.

The size, price and efficiency of this new multi-analyze device make it a highly promising invention for a multiplicity of uses. “Recent studies have shown that certain illness like cancer or Alzheimer’s are better diagnosed and false positive results avoided when several parameters can be analyzed at once,” says Hatice Altug. “Moreover, it is possible to remove the substrate and then replace it with another one, allowing to be adapted for a wide range of biomedical and environmental research requiring monitoring of biomolecules, chemicals and bioparticles.” The research team foresees collaborating with local hospitals in the near future to find the best way to use this new technology.

A new science magazine edited and peer-reviewed by children: Frontiers for Young Minds

November 15, 2013 article by Alice Truong about Frontiers for Young Minds (for Fast Company), profiles a new journal meant to be read by children and edited and peer-reviewed by children. Let’s start with an excerpt from the Truong article as an introduction to the Frontiers for Young Minds journal (Note: Links have been removed),

Frontiers for Young Minds is made up of editors ages 8 to 18 who learn the ropes of peer review from working scientists. With 18 young minds and 38 adult authors and associate editors lending their expertise, the journal–an offshoot of the academic research network Frontiers …

With a mission to engage a budding generation of scientists, UC [University of California at] Berkeley professor Robert Knight created the kid-friendly version of Frontiers and serves as its editor-in-chief. The young editors review and approve submissions, which are written so kids can understand them–”clearly, concisely and with enthusiasm!” the guidelines suggest. Many of the scientists who provide guidance are academics, hailing from Harvard to Rio de Janeiro’s D’Or Institute for Research and Education. The pieces are peer reviewed by one of the young editors, but to protect their identities only their first names are published along with the authors’ names.

Great idea and bravo to all involved in the project! Here’s an excerpt from the Frontiers for Young Minds About webpage,

Areas in Development now include:

  • The Brain and Friends (social neuroscience)
  • The Brain and Fun (emotion)
  • The Brain and Magic (perception, sensation)
  • The Brain and Allowances (neuroeconomics)
  • The Brain and School (attention, decision making)
  • The Brain and Sports (motor control, action)
  • The Brain and Life (memory)
  • The Brain and Talking/Texting (language)
  • The Brain and Growing (neurodevelopment)
  • The Brain and Math (neural organization of math, computational neuroscience)
  • The Brain and Health (neurology, psychiatry)
  • The Brain and Robots (brain machine interface)
  • The Brain and Music (music!)
  • The Brain and Light (optogenetics)
  • The Brain and Gaming (Fun, Action, Learning)
  • The Brain and Reading
  • The Brain and Pain
  • The Brain and Tools (basis of brain measurements)
  • The Brain and History (the story of brain research)
  • The Brain and Drugs (drugs)
  • The Brain and Sleep

I believe the unofficial title for this online journal is Frontiers (in Neuroscience) for Young Minds. I guess they were trying to make the title less cumbersome which, unfortunately, results in a bit of confusion.

At any rate, there’s a quite a range of young minds at work as editors and reviewers, from the Editorial Team’s webpage,

Sacha
14 years old
Amsterdam, Netherlands

When I was just a few weeks old, we moved to Bennekom, a small town close to Arnhem (“a bridge too far”). I am now 14 and follow the bilingual stream in secondary school, receiving lessons in English and Dutch. I hope to do the International Bacquelaurate before I leave school. In my spare time, I like to play football and hang out with my mates. Doing this editing interested me for three reasons: I really wanted to understand more about my dad’s work; I like the idea of this journal that helps us understand what our parents do; and I also like the idea of being an editor!

Abby
11 years old
Israel

I currently live in Israel, but I lived in NYC and I loved it. I like wall climbing, dancing, watching TV, scuba diving, and I love learning new things about how our world works. Oh, I also love the Weird-but-True books. You should try reading them too.

Caleb
14 years old
Canada

I enjoy reading and thinking about life. I have a flair for the dramatic. Woe betide the contributor who falls under my editorial pen. I am in several theatrical productions and I like to go camping in the Canadian wilds. My comment on brains: I wish I had one.

Darius
10 years old
Lafayette, CA, USA

I am in fifth grade. In my free time I enjoy reading and computer programming. As a hobby, I make useful objects and experiment with devices. I am very interested in the environment and was one of the founders of my school’s green committee. I enjoy reading about science, particularly chemistry, biology, and neuroscience.

Marin
8 years old
Cambridge, MA, USA

3rd grader who plays the piano and loves to sing and dance. She participates in Science Club for Girls and she and her Mom will be performing in their second opera this year.

Eleanor
8 years old
Champaign, IL, USA

I like reading and drawing. My favorite colors are blue, silver, pink, and purple. My favorite food is creamed spinach. I like to go shopping with my Mom.

….

At age 8, I would have been less Marin and more Eleanor. I hated opera; my father made us listen every Sunday afternoon during the winters.

Here’s something from an article about brain-machine interfaces for the final excerpt from the website (from the articles webpage),

[downloaded from http://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/brain-machine_interfaces/7/]

[downloaded from http://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/brain-machine_interfaces/7/]

Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI), or brain-computer interfaces (BCI), is an exciting multidisciplinary field that has grown tremendously during the last decade. In a nutshell, BMI is about transforming thought into action and sensation into perception. In a BMI system, neural signals recorded from the brain are fed into a decoding algorithm that translates these signals into motor output. This includes controlling a computer cursor, steering a wheelchair, or driving a robotic arm. A closed control loop is typically established by providing the subject with visual feedback of the prosthetic device. BMIs have tremendous potential to greatly improve the quality of life of millions of people suffering from spinal cord injury, stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other severely disabling conditions.6

I think this piece written by Jose M. Carmena and José del R. Millán and reviewed by Bhargavi, 13 years old, is a good beginner’s piece for any adults who might be interested, as well as,, the journal’s target audience. This illustration the scientists have provided is very helpful to anyone who, for whatever reason, isn’t that knowledgeable about this area of research,

Figure 1 - Your brain in action: the different components of a BMI include the recording system, the decoding algorithm, device to be controlled, and the feedback delivered to the user (modified from Heliot and Carmena, 2010).

Figure 1 – Your brain in action:
the different components of a BMI include the recording system, the decoding algorithm, device to be controlled, and the feedback delivered to the user (modified from Heliot and Carmena, 2010).

As for getting information about basic details, here’s some of what I unearthed. The parent organization, ‘Frontiers in’ is based in Switzerland and describes itself this way on its About page,

Frontiers is a community-oriented open-access academic publisher and research network.

Our grand vision is to build an Open Science platform that empowers researchers in their daily work and where everybody has equal opportunity to seek, share and generate knowledge.

Frontiers is at the forefront of building the ultimate Open Science platform. We are driving innovations and new technologies around peer-review, article and author impact metrics, social networking for researchers, and a whole ecosystem of open science tools. We are the first – and only – platform that combines open-access publishing with research networking, with the goal to increase the reach of publications and ultimately the impact of articles and their authors.

Frontiers was launched as a grassroots initiative in 2007 by scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, out of the collective desire to improve the publishing options and provide better tools and services to researchers in the Internet age. Since then, Frontiers has become the fastest-growing open-access scholarly publisher, with a rapidly growing number of community-driven journals, more than 25,000 of high-impact researchers across a wide range of academic fields serving on the editorial boards and more than 4 million monthly page views.

As of a Feb. 27, 2013 news release, Frontiers has partnered with the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), Note: Links have been removed,

Emerging publisher Frontiers is joining Nature Publishing Group (NPG) in a strategic alliance to advance the global open science movement.

NPG, publisher of Nature, today announces a majority investment in the Swiss-based open access (OA) publisher Frontiers.

NPG and Frontiers will work together to empower researchers to change the way science is communicated, through open access publication and open science tools. Frontiers, led by CEO and neuroscientist Kamila Markram, will continue to operate with its own platform, brands, and policies.

Founded by scientists from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in 2007, Frontiers is one of the fastest growing open access publishers, more than doubling articles published year on year. Frontiers now has a portfolio of open access journals in 14 fields of science and medicine, and published over 5,000 OA articles in 2012.

Working with NPG, the journal series “Frontiers in” will significantly expand in 2013-2014. Currently, sixty-three journals published by NPG offer open access options or are open access and NPG published over 2000 open access articles in 2012. Bilateral links between nature.com and frontiersin.org will ensure that open access papers are visible on both sites.

Frontiers and NPG will also be working together on innovations in open science tools, networking, and publication processes.

Frontiers is based at EPFL in Switzerland, and works out of Innovation Square, a technology park supporting science start-ups, and hosting R&D divisions of large companies such as Logitech & Nestlé.

As for this new venture, Frontiers for Young Minds, this appears to have been launched on Nov. 11, 2013. At least, that’s what I understand from this notice on Frontier’s Facebook page (Note: Links have been removed,

Frontiers
November 11 [2013?]
Great news for kids, parents, teachers and neuroscientists! We have just launched the first Frontiers for Young Minds!

Frontiers in #Neuroscience for Young Minds is an #openaccess scientific journal that involves young people in the review of articles.

This has the double benefit of bringing kids into the world of science and offering scientists a platform for reaching out to the broadest of all audiences.

Frontiers for Young Minds is science edited for kids, by kids. Learn more and spread the word! http://bit.ly/1dijipy #sfn13

I am glad to see this effort and I wish all the parties involved the best of luck.

So, why do gold nanoparticles facilitate cell penetration without damage to cell walls?

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and l’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switerzerland have found an answer to the question about why gold nanoparticles facilitate cell penetration without damage to the cell walls. Apparently it has nothing to with the gold; it’s all in the coating according to an Aug. 23, 2013 MIT news release by David L. Chandler (also on EurekAlert),

Cells are very good at protecting their precious contents — and as a result, it’s very difficult to penetrate their membrane walls to deliver drugs, nutrients or biosensors without damaging or destroying the cell. One effective way of doing so, discovered in 2008, is to use nanoparticles of pure gold, coated with a thin layer of a special polymer. But nobody knew exactly why this combination worked so well, or how it made it through the cell wall.

Now, researchers at MIT and the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne in Switzerland have figured out how the process works, and the limits on the sizes of particles that can be used. …

Until now, says Van Lehn, the paper’s lead author [Reid Van Lehn], “the mechanism was unknown. … In this work, we wanted to simplify the process and understand the forces” that allow gold nanoparticles to penetrate cell walls without permanently damaging the membranes or rupturing the cells. The researchers did so through a combination of lab experiments and computer simulations.

The news release goes on to provide details about the research,

The team demonstrated that the crucial first step in the process is for coated gold nanoparticles to fuse with the lipids — a category of natural fats, waxes and vitamins — that form the cell wall. The scientists also demonstrated an upper limit on the size of such particles that can penetrate the cell wall — a limit that depends on the composition of the particle’s coating. [emphases mine]

The coating applied to the gold particles consists of a mix of hydrophobic and hydrophilic components that form a monolayer — a layer just one molecule thick — on the particle’s surface. Any of several different compounds can be used, the researchers explain. [emphases mine]

“Cells tend to engulf things on the surface,” says Alexander-Katz, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, but it’s “very unusual” for materials to cross that membrane into the cell’s interior without causing major damage. Irvine and Stellacci demonstrated in 2008 that monolayer-coated gold nanoparticles could do so; they have since been working to better understand why and how that works.

Since the nanoparticles themselves are completely coated, the fact that they are made of gold doesn’t have any direct effect, except that gold nanoparticles are an easily prepared model system, the researchers say. However, there is some evidence that the gold particles have therapeutic properties, which could be a side benefit.

Gold particles are also very good at capturing X-rays — so if they could be made to penetrate cancer cells, and were then heated by a beam of X-rays, they could destroy those cells from within. “So the fact that it’s gold may be useful,” says Irvine, a professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering and member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Significantly, the mechanism that allows the nanoparticles to pass through the membrane seems also to seal the opening as soon as the particle has passed. “They would go through without allowing even small molecules to leak through behind them,” Van Lehn says.

Irvine says that his lab is also interested in harnessing this cell-penetrating mechanism as a way of delivering drugs to the cell’s interior, by binding them to the surface coating material. One important step in making that a useful process, he says, is finding ways to allow the nanoparticle coatings to be selective about what types of cells they attach to. “If it’s all cells, that’s not very useful,” he says, but if the coatings can be targeted to a particular cell type that is the target of a drug, that could be a significant benefit.

Another potential application of this work could be in attaching or inserting biosensing molecules on or into certain cells, Van Lehn says. In this way, scientists could detect or monitor specific biochemical markers, such as proteins that indicate the onset or decline of a disease or a metabolic process.

The research paper can be found here,

Effect of Particle Diameter and Surface Composition on the Spontaneous Fusion of Monolayer-Protected Gold Nanoparticles with Lipid Bilayers by Reid C. Van Lehn, Prabhani U. Atukorale, Randy P. Carney, Yu-Sang Yang, Francesco Stellacci, Darrell J. Irvine, and Alfredo Alexander-Katz. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nl401365n Publication Date (Web): August 5, 2013
Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

It is behind a paywall.

There once was a champion … it was nano-rust

Swiss and Israeli scientists have discovered water and nano iron oxide (rust) can be used to produce solar hydrogen cheaply. From the July 7, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

In the quest for the production of renewable and clean energy, photoelectrochemical cells (PECs) constitute a sort of a Holy Grail. PECs are devices able of splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen in a single operation, thanks to solar radiation. “As a matter of fact, we’ve already discovered this precious chalice, says Michael Grätzel, Director of the Laboratory of Photonics and Interfaces (LPI) at EPFL [Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] and inventor of dye-sensitized photoelectrochemical cells. Today we have just reached an important milestone on the path that will lead us forward to profitable industrial applications.”

This week, Nature Materials is indeed publishing a groundbreaking article on the subject. EPFL researchers, working with Avner Rotschild from Technion (Israel), have managed to accurately characterize the iron oxide nanostructures to be used in order to produce hydrogen at the lowest possible cost. “The whole point of our approach is to use an exceptionally abundant, stable and cheap material: rust,” adds Scott C. Warren, first author of the article.

The EFFL July 9, 2013 news release by Emmanuel Barraud about this research provides more details,

At the end of last year, Kevin Sivula, one of the collaborators at the LPI laboratory, presented a prototype electrode based on the same principle. Its efficiency was such that gas bubbles emerged as soon as it was under a light stimulus. Without a doubt, the potential of such cheap electrodes was demonstrated, even if there was still room for improvement.

By using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) techniques, researchers were able to precisely characterize the movement of the electrons through the cauliflower-looking nanostructures forming the iron oxide particles, laid on electrodes during the manufacturing process. “These measures have helped us understand the reason why we get performance differences depending on the electrodes manufacturing process”, says Grätzel.

By comparing several electrodes, whose manufacturing method is now mastered, scientists were able to identify the “champion” structure. A 10×10 cm prototype has been produced and its effectiveness is in line with expectations. The next step will be the development of the industrial process to large-scale manufacturing. A European funding and the Swiss federal government could provide support for this last part.

Evidently, the long-term goal is to produce hydrogen – the fuel of the future – in an environmentally friendly and especially competitive way. For Michael Grätzel, “current methods, in which a conventional photovoltaic cell is coupled to an electrolyzer for producing hydrogen, cost 15 € per kilo at their cheapest. We’re aiming at a € 5 charge per kilo”.

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

Identifying champion nanostructures for solar water-splitting by Scott C. Warren, Kislon Voïtchovsky, Hen Dotan, Celine M. Leroy, Maurin Cornuz, Francesco Stellacci, Cécile Hébert, Avner Rothschild & Michael Grätzel. Nature Materials (2013) doi:10.1038/nmat3684
Published online 07 July 2013

This paper is behind a paywall.

Needles not needed for blood tests with implantable lab-on-a-chip

Swiss Nano-Tera program researchers have developed an implantable lab-on-a-chip which can test blood and convey the results to your doctor (once they take the device out of the laboratory) according to a Mar. 19, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

Humans are veritable chemical factories – we manufacture thousands of substances and transport them, via our blood, throughout our bodies. Some of these substances can be used as indicators of our health status. A team of EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) scientists has developed a tiny device that can analyze the concentration of these substances in the blood. Implanted just beneath the skin, it can detect up to five proteins and organic acids simultaneously, and then transmit the results directly to a doctor’s computer. This method will allow a much more personalized level of care than traditional blood tests can provide. Health care providers will be better able to monitor patients, particularly those with chronic illness or those undergoing chemotherapy. The prototype, still in the experimental stages, has demonstrated that it can reliably detect several commonly traced substances. The research results will be published and presented March 20, 2013 in Europe’s largest electronics conference, DATE 13.

Design,  Automation, and Test in Europe (DATE) 2013 can be found here. For those of us who won’t be at the DATE 13 conference, this EPFL video highlights some of the research being presented there,

The EPFL Mar. 20, 2013 news release provides more information about the technology and potential applications,

The device was developed by a team led by EPFL scientists Giovanni de Micheli and Sandro Carrara. The implant, a real gem of concentrated technology, is only a few cubic millimeters in volume but includes five sensors, a radio transmitter and a power delivery system. Outside the body, a battery patch provides 1/10 watt of power, through the patient’s skin – thus there’s no need to operate every time the battery needs changing.

Information is routed through a series of stages, from the patient’s body to the doctor’s computer screen. The implant emits radio waves over a safe frequency. The patch collects the data and transmits them via Bluetooth to a mobile phone, which then sends them to the doctor over the cellular network.

Great care was taken in developing the sensors. To capture the targeted substance in the body – such as lactate, glucose, or ATP – each sensor’s surface is covered with an enzyme. “Potentially, we could detect just about anything,” explains De Micheli. “But the enzymes have a limited lifespan, and we have to design them to last as long as possible.” The enzymes currently being tested are good for about a month and a half; that’s already long enough for many applications. “In addition, it’s very easy to remove and replace the implant, since it’s so small.”

The electronics were a considerable challenge as well. “It was not easy to get a system like this to work on just a tenth of a watt,” de Micheli explains. The researchers also struggled to design the minuscule electrical coil that receives the power from the patch.

The implant could be particularly useful in chemotherapy applications. Currently, oncologists use occasional blood tests to evaluate their patients’ tolerance to a particular treatment dosage. In these conditions, it is very difficult to administer the optimal dose. …

In patients with chronic illness, the implants could send alerts even before symptoms emerge, and anticipate the need for medication. “In a general sense, our system has enormous potential in cases where the evolution of a pathology needs to be monitored or the tolerance to a treatment tested.”

The prototype has already been tested in the laboratory for five different substances, and proved as reliable as traditional analysis methods. The project brought together eletronics experts, computer scientists, doctors and biologists from EPFL, the Istituto di Ricerca di Bellinzona, EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) and ETHZ (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich). It is part of the Swiss Nano-Tera program, whose goal is to encourage interdisciplinary research in the environmental and medical fields. Researchers hope the system will be commercially available within 4 years. [emphases mine]

“Making this technology commercially available within four years” seems rather optimistic since the news release mentions laboratory testing only. Optimistic that is, unless the researchers are already running human clinical trials not mentioned in the news release.

One last thought, objects implanted into the body tend to break down over time as per hip and knee replacements. I wonder if this lab-on-a-chip could be subject to some of the same drawbacks.

Shake hands with Sacha, a robot controlled by carbon nanotube transistors

Since we use computer chips built from silicon in any number devices including robots, the announcement of a robot controlled by the first computer chip built entirely of a material other silicon bears notice. From the Mar. 15, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: Links have been removed),

A group of Stanford researchers recently debuted the first robot controlled by a computer chip built entirely from carbon nanotube transistors, which many scientists predict may eventually replace silicon.

While scientists have produced simple demonstrations of working carbon nanotube circuit components in the past, the Stanford team, led by Professor of Electrical Engineering Philip Wong and Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Subhasish Mitra Ph.D. ’00, was able to demonstrate an actual subsystem composed entirely of the material.

The news item was originated by a Mar. 7, 2013 article by Nikhita Obeegadoo for the Stanford Daily, where she noted,

The project was presented in the form of a robot named Sacha at the 2013 International Solid-State Circuits Conference (“Sacha, the Stanford Carbon Nanotube Controlled Handshaking Robot”), which was held in San Francisco. According to Mitra, the robot was created to demonstrate the development of a system that can function despite the errors caused by inherently imperfect nanotubes, which have posed issues for research teams working with carbon nanotubes in the past.

“Through several generations of technology, devices keep getting smaller and denser, and silicon will no longer be the best material for the purpose in about ten years,” Guha [Supratik Guha, director of physical sciences at IBM’s Yorktown Heights Research Center] said. “For needs that are close to atomic dimensions, carbon nanotubes have just the right shape and the right electrical behavior.”

Eric Juma on his eponymous blog offers more insight into the project in his Mar. 16, 2013 posting,

… The robot contained a carbon nanotube capacitor, a device found in many touchscreens, connected to another nanotube circuit, which turned the analog signal from the capacitor into a digital signal, which was transmitted to the microprocessor that contained CNT transistors. The microporcessor then sent a signal to a motor on the hand of the robot, which shook the person’s hand that touched the capacitors embedded in it.

This is not the first example of carbon nanotube circuitry, but it is the first example of CNTs being produced at mass for a microprocessor and circuit that were integrated. This advancement showed that it is possible to produce mass amounts of CNTs and have them integrate succesfully into a complex system. Although the size of the CNTs in this system are far from the optimal size of 10nm, it is a good starting point, and the nanotubes still can be much further refined.

Carbon nanotubes, although perfect in theory for microprocessors, present new challenges for engineers. The greatest challenge is the actual integration of CNTs into circuitry. Nanotubes often force themselves into a tangled position, which can cause circuits to fail without warning.

Juma gives a good explanation for why there is so much interest in carbon nanotubes in the field of electronics and he provides links to more information about it all. (There’s a video about carbon nanotubes and their various shapes and structures in my Mar. 15, 2013 posting about them.)

Sacha will be seen (or perhaps the work will simply be presented by Max Shulaker?) next in Switzerland at a Mar. 25, 2013 workshop (FED ’13; Functionality-Enhanced Devices Workshop) at the EPFl (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

Montréal Neuro and one of Europe’s biggest research enterprises, the Human Brain Project

Its official title is the Montréal Neurological Institute and Hospital (Montréal Neuro) which is and has been, for several decades, an international centre for cutting edge neurological research. From the Jan. 28, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

The Neuro

The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro, is a unique academic medical centre dedicated to neuroscience. Founded in 1934 by the renowned Dr. Wilder Penfield, The Neuro is recognized internationally for integrating research, compassionate patient care and advanced training, all key to advances in science and medicine. The Neuro is a research and teaching institute of McGill University and forms the basis for the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre.

Neuro researchers are world leaders in cellular and molecular neuroscience, brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience and the study and treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and neuromuscular disorders. For more information, visit theneuro.com.

Nonetheless, it was a little surprising to see that ‘The Neuro’ is part one of the biggest research projects in history since it’s the European Union, which is bankrolling the project (see my posting about the Jan. 28, 2013 announcement of the winning FET Flagship Initatives). Here’s more information about the project, its lead researchers, and Canada’s role, from the news release,

The goal of the Human Brain Project is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations. The models offer the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies. On January 28 [2013], the European Commission supported this vision, announcing that it has selected the HBP as one of two projects to be funded through the new FET [Future and Emerging Technologies] Flagship Program.

Federating more than 80 European and international research institutions, the Human Brain Project is planned to last ten years (2013-2023). The cost is estimated at 1.19 billion euros. The project will also associate some important North American and Japanese partners. It will be coordinated at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, by neuroscientist Henry Markram with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University, Germany, and Richard Frackowiak of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL).

Canada’s role in this international project is through Dr. Alan Evans of the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University. His group has developed a high-performance computational platform for neuroscience (CBRAIN) and multi-site databasing technologies that will be used to assemble brain imaging data across the HBP. He is also collaborating with European scientists on the creation of ultra high-resolution 3D brain maps. «This ambitious project will integrate data across all scales, from molecules to whole-brain organization. It will have profound implications for our understanding of brain development in children and normal brain function, as well as for combatting brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease,» said Dr. Evans. “The MNI’s pioneering work on brain imaging technology has led to significant advances in our understanding of the brain and neurological disorders,” says Dr. Guy Rouleau, Director of the MNI. “I am proud that our expertise is a key contributor to this international program focused on improving quality of life worldwide.”

“The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is delighted to acknowledge the outstanding contributions of Dr. Evans and his team. Their work on the CBRAIN infrastructure and this leading-edge HBP will allow the integration of Canadian neuroscientists into an eventual global brain project,” said Dr. Anthony Phillips, Scientific Director for the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction. “Congratulations to the Canadian and European researchers who will be working collaboratively towards the same goal which is to provide insights into neuroscience that will ultimately improve people’s health.”

“From mapping the sensory and motor cortices of the brain to pioneering work on the mechanisms of memory, McGill University has long been synonymous with world-class neuroscience research,” says Dr. Rose Goldstein, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations). “The research of Dr. Evans and his team marks an exciting new chapter in our collective pursuit to unlock the potential of the human brain and the entire nervous system – a critical step that would not be possible without the generous support of the European Commission and the FET Flagship Program.”

Canada is not the only non-European Union country making an announcement about its role in this extraordinary project. There’s a Jan. 28, 2013 news release on EurekAlert touting Israel’s role,

The European Commission has chosen the Human Brain Project, in which the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is participating, as one of two Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship topics. The enterprise will receive funding of 1.19 billion euros over the next decade.

The project will bring together top scientists from around the world who will work on one of the great challenges of modern science: understanding the human brain. Participating from Israel will a team of eight scientists, led by Prof. Idan Segev of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) at the Hebrew University, Prof. Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Dr. Mira Marcus-Kalish of Tel Aviv University.

More than 80 universities and research institutions in Europe and the world will be involved in the ten-year Human Brain Project, which will commence later this year and operate until the year 2023. The project will be centered at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, headed by Prof. Henry Markram, a former Israeli who was recruited ten years ago to the EPFL.

The participation of the Israeli scientists testifies to the leading role that Israeli brain research occupies in the world, said Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Israel has put brain research at the heart of its efforts for the coming decade, and our country is already spearheading the global effort towards the betterment of our understanding of mankind. I am confident that the forthcoming discoveries will benefit a wide range of domains, from health to industry, as well as our society as a whole,” Peres said.

“The human brain is the most complex and amazing structure in the universe, yet we are very far from understanding it. In a way, we are strangers to ourselves. Unraveling the mysteries of the brain will help us understand our functioning, our choices, and ultimately ourselves. I congratulate the European Commission for its vision in selecting the Human Brain Project as a Flagship Mission for the forthcoming decade,” said Peres.

What’s amusing is that as various officials and interested parties (such as myself) wax lyrical about these projects, most of the rest of the world is serenely oblivious to it all.

Graphene and Human Brain Project win biggest research award in history (& this is the 2000th post)

The European Commission has announced the two winners of its FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) Flagships Initiative in a Jan. 28, 2013 news release,

The winning Graphene and Human Brain initiatives are set to receive one billion euros each, to deliver 10 years of world-beating science at the crossroads of science and technology. Each initiative involves researchers from at least 15 EU Member States and nearly 200 research institutes.

“Graphene” will investigate and exploit the unique properties of a revolutionary carbon-based material. Graphene is an extraordinary combination of physical and chemical properties: it is the thinnest material, it conducts electricity much better than copper, it is 100-300 times stronger than steel and it has unique optical properties. The use of graphene was made possible by European scientists in 2004, and the substance is set to become the wonder material of the 21st century, as plastics were to the 20th century, including by replacing silicon in ICT products.

The “Human Brain Project” will create the world’s largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the brain, for studying how the human brain works and ultimately to develop personalised treatment of neurological and related diseases. This research lays the scientific and technical foundations for medical progress that has the potential to will dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of Europeans.

The European Commission will support “Graphene” and the “Human Brain Project” as FET “flagships” over 10 years through its research and innovation funding programmes. Sustained funding for the full duration of the project will come from the EU’s research framework programmes, principally from the Horizon 2020 programme (2014-2020) which is currently negotiated in the European Parliament and Council.

European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes said: “Europe’s position as a knowledge superpower depends on thinking the unthinkable and exploiting the best ideas. This multi-billion competition rewards home-grown scientific breakthroughs and shows that when we are ambitious we can develop the best research in Europe. To keep Europe competitive, to keep Europe as the home of scientific excellence, EU governments must agree an ambitious budget for the Horizon 2020 programme in the coming weeks.”

“Graphene” is led by Prof. Jari Kinaret, from Sweden’s Chalmers University. The Flagship involves over 100 research groups, with 136 principal investigators, including four Nobel laureates. “The Human Brain Project” involves scientists from 87 institutions and is led by Prof. Henry Markram of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

As noted in my Jan. 24, 2013 posting about the new Cambridge Graphene Centre in the UK, while the Graphene flagship lead is from Sweden, the UK  has more educational institutions than any other country party to the flagship consortium.

Here are some funding details from the Jan. 28, 2013 news release,

Horizon 2020 is the new EU programme for research and innovation, presented by the Commission as part of its EU budget proposal for 2014 to 2020. In order to give a boost to research and innovation as a driver of growth and jobs, the Commission has proposed an ambitious budget of €80 billion over seven years, including the FET flagship programme itself.

The winners will receive up to €54 million from the European Commission’s ICT 2013 Work Programme. Further funding will come from subsequent EU research framework programmes, private partners including universities, Member States and industry.

1 billion Euros sounds like a lot of money but it’s being paid out over 10 years (100 million per year) and through many institutional layers at the European Commission and at the educational institutions themselves. One wonders how much of the money will go to research rather than administration.

2000th posting: My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog and and to those who’ve taken the time to comment on the blog, on Twitter, or directly to me. Your interest has kept this blog going far longer than I believed it would.

Hydrogen ‘traffic jams’ and embrittlement

Here’s something about how hydrogen atoms cause metals to become embrittled, from  a Nov. 19, 2012 McGill University (Montréal, Québec) news release,

Hydrogen, the lightest element, can easily dissolve and migrate within metals to make these otherwise ductile materials brittle and substantially more prone to failures.

Since the phenomenon was discovered in 1875, hydrogen embrittlement has been a persistent problem for the design of structural materials in various industries, from battleships to aircraft and nuclear reactors. Despite decades of research, experts have yet to fully understand the physics underlying the problem or to develop a rigorous model for predicting when, where and how hydrogen embrittlement will occur.  As a result, industrial designers must still resort to a trial- and-error approach.

Now, Jun Song, an Assistant Professor in Materials Engineering at McGill University, and Prof. William Curtin, Director of the Institute of Mechanical Engineering at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, have shown that the answer to hydrogen embrittlement may be rooted in how hydrogen modifies material behaviours at the nanoscale.  In their study, published in Nature Materials, Song and Curtin present a new model that can accurately predict the occurrence of hydrogen embrittlement.

Under normal conditions, metals can undergo substantial plastic deformation when subjected to forces. This plasticity stems from the ability of nano-  and micro-sized cracks to generate “dislocations” within the metal – movements of atoms that serve to relieve stress in the material.

“Dislocations can be viewed as vehicles to carry plastic deformation, while the nano- and micro-sized cracks can be viewed as hubs to dispatch those vehicles,” Song explains. “The desirable properties of metals, such as ductility and toughness, rely on the hubs functioning well.  Unfortunately those hubs also attract hydrogen atoms. The way hydrogen atoms embrittle metals is by causing a kind of traffic jam: they crowd around the hub and block all possible routes for vehicle dispatch. This eventually leads to the material breaking down.”

State-of-the-art computer simulations were performed by Song to reveal explicitly how hydrogen atoms move within metals and how they interact with metal atoms. This simulation was followed by rigorous kinetic analysis, to link the nanoscale details with macroscopic experimental conditions.

This model has been applied to predict embrittlement thresholds in a variety of ferritic iron-based steels and produced excellent agreements with experiments.  The findings provide a framework for interpreting experiments and designing next-generation embrittlement-resistant structural materials.

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

Atomic mechanism and prediction of hydrogen embrittlement in iron” by Jun Song & W. A. Curtin in Nature Materials (2012) doi:10.1038/nmat3479 (advance online publication Nov.11, 2012)

This article is behind a paywall.