Tag Archives: Kavli Foundation

Gold’s origin in the universe due to cosmic collision

An hypothesis for gold’s origins was first mentioned here in a May 26, 2016 posting,

The link between this research and my side project on gold nanoparticles is a bit tenuous but this work on the origins for gold and other precious metals being found in the stars is so fascinating and I’m determined to find a connection.

An artist's impression of two neutron stars colliding. (Credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.) Courtesy: Kavli Foundation

An artist’s impression of two neutron stars colliding. (Credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.) Courtesy: Kavli Foundation

From a May 19, 2016 news item on phys.org,

The origin of many of the most precious elements on the periodic table, such as gold, silver and platinum, has perplexed scientists for more than six decades. Now a recent study has an answer, evocatively conveyed in the faint starlight from a distant dwarf galaxy.

In a roundtable discussion, published today [May 19, 2016?], The Kavli Foundation spoke to two of the researchers behind the discovery about why the source of these heavy elements, collectively called “r-process” elements, has been so hard to crack.

From the Spring 2016 Kavli Foundation webpage hosting the  “Galactic ‘Gold Mine’ Explains the Origin of Nature’s Heaviest Elements” Roundtable ,

Astronomers studying a galaxy called Reticulum II have just discovered that its stars contain whopping amounts of these metals—collectively known as “r-process” elements (See “What is the R-Process?”). Of the 10 dwarf galaxies that have been similarly studied so far, only Reticulum II bears such strong chemical signatures. The finding suggests some unusual event took place billions of years ago that created ample amounts of heavy elements and then strew them throughout the galaxy’s reservoir of gas and dust. This r-process-enriched material then went on to form Reticulum II’s standout stars.

Based on the new study, from a team of researchers at the Kavli Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the unusual event in Reticulum II was likely the collision of two, ultra-dense objects called neutron stars. Scientists have hypothesized for decades that these collisions could serve as a primary source for r-process elements, yet the idea had lacked solid observational evidence. Now armed with this information, scientists can further hope to retrace the histories of galaxies based on the contents of their stars, in effect conducting “stellar archeology.”

Researchers have confirmed the hypothesis according to an Oct. 16, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Gold’s origin in the Universe has finally been confirmed, after a gravitational wave source was seen and heard for the first time ever by an international collaboration of researchers, with astronomers at the University of Warwick playing a leading role.

Members of Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group, Professor Andrew Levan, Dr Joe Lyman, Dr Sam Oates and Dr Danny Steeghs, led observations which captured the light of two colliding neutron stars, shortly after being detected through gravitational waves – perhaps the most eagerly anticipated phenomenon in modern astronomy.

Marina Koren’s Oct. 16, 2017 article for The Atlantic presents a richly evocative view (Note: Links have been removed),

Some 130 million years ago, in another galaxy, two neutron stars spiraled closer and closer together until they smashed into each other in spectacular fashion. The violent collision produced gravitational waves, cosmic ripples powerful enough to stretch and squeeze the fabric of the universe. There was a brief flash of light a million trillion times as bright as the sun, and then a hot cloud of radioactive debris. The afterglow hung for several days, shifting from bright blue to dull red as the ejected material cooled in the emptiness of space.

Astronomers detected the aftermath of the merger on Earth on August 17. For the first time, they could see the source of universe-warping forces Albert Einstein predicted a century ago. Unlike with black-hole collisions, they had visible proof, and it looked like a bright jewel in the night sky.

But the merger of two neutron stars is more than fireworks. It’s a factory.

Using infrared telescopes, astronomers studied the spectra—the chemical composition of cosmic objects—of the collision and found that the plume ejected by the merger contained a host of newly formed heavy chemical elements, including gold, silver, platinum, and others. Scientists estimate the amount of cosmic bling totals about 10,000 Earth-masses of heavy elements.

I’m not sure exactly what this image signifies but it did accompany Koren’s article so presumably it’s a representation of colliding neutron stars,

NSF / LIGO / Sonoma State University /A. Simonnet. Downloaded from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/the-making-of-cosmic-bling/543030/

An Oct. 16, 2017 University of Warwick press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item on phys.org, provides more detail,

Huge amounts of gold, platinum, uranium and other heavy elements were created in the collision of these compact stellar remnants, and were pumped out into the universe – unlocking the mystery of how gold on wedding rings and jewellery is originally formed.

The collision produced as much gold as the mass of the Earth. [emphasis mine]

This discovery has also confirmed conclusively that short gamma-ray bursts are directly caused by the merging of two neutron stars.

The neutron stars were very dense – as heavy as our Sun yet only 10 kilometres across – and they collided with each other 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, in a relatively old galaxy that was no longer forming many stars.

They drew towards each other over millions of light years, and revolved around each other increasingly quickly as they got closer – eventually spinning around each other five hundred times per second.

Their merging sent ripples through the fabric of space and time – and these ripples are the elusive gravitational waves spotted by the astronomers.

The gravitational waves were detected by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Adv-LIGO) on 17 August this year [2017], with a short duration gamma-ray burst detected by the Fermi satellite just two seconds later.

This led to a flurry of observations as night fell in Chile, with a first report of a new source from the Swope 1m telescope.

Longstanding collaborators Professor Levan and Professor Nial Tanvir (from the University of Leicester) used the facilities of the European Southern Observatory to pinpoint the source in infrared light.

Professor Levan’s team was the first one to get observations of this new source with the Hubble Space Telescope. It comes from a galaxy called NGC 4993, 130 million light years away.

Andrew Levan, Professor in the Astronomy & Astrophysics group at the University of Warwick, commented: “Once we saw the data, we realised we had caught a new kind of astrophysical object. This ushers in the era of multi-messenger astronomy, it is like being able to see and hear for the first time.”

Dr Joe Lyman, who was observing at the European Southern Observatory at the time was the first to alert the community that the source was unlike any seen before.

He commented: “The exquisite observations obtained in a few days showed we were observing a kilonova, an object whose light is powered by extreme nuclear reactions. This tells us that the heavy elements, like the gold or platinum in jewellery are the cinders, forged in the billion degree remnants of a merging neutron star.”

Dr Samantha Oates added: “This discovery has answered three questions that astronomers have been puzzling for decades: what happens when neutron stars merge? What causes the short duration gamma-ray bursts? Where are the heavy elements, like gold, made? In the space of about a week all three of these mysteries were solved.”

Dr Danny Steeghs said: “This is a new chapter in astrophysics. We hope that in the next few years we will detect many more events like this. Indeed, in Warwick we have just finished building a telescope designed to do just this job, and we expect it to pinpoint these sources in this new era of multi-messenger astronomy”.

Congratulations to all of the researchers involved in this work!

Many, many research teams were  involved. Here’s a sampling of their news releases which focus on their areas of research,

University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/uotw-wti101717.php

Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/wios-cns101717.php

Carnegie Institution for Science (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/cifs-dns101217.php

Northwestern University (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/nu-adc101617.php

National Radio Astronomy Observatory (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/nrao-ru101317.php

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (Germany)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/m-gwf101817.php

Penn State (Pennsylvania State University; US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/ps-stl101617.php

University of California – Davis

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/uoc–cns101717.php

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) magazine, Science, has published seven papers on this research. Here’s an Oct. 16, 2017 AAAS news release with an overview of the papers,

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/aaft-btf101617.php

I’m sure there are more news releases out there and that there will be many more papers published in many journals, so if this interests, I encourage you to keep looking.

Two final pieces I’d like to draw your attention to: one answers basic questions and another focuses on how artists knew what to draw when neutron stars collide.

Keith A Spencer’s Oct. 18, 2017 piece on salon.com answers a lot of basic questions for those of us who don’t have a background in astronomy. Here are a couple of examples,

What is a neutron star?

Okay, you know how atoms have protons, neutrons, and electrons in them? And you know how protons are positively charged, and electrons are negatively charged, and neutrons are neutral?

Yeah, I remember that from watching Bill Nye as a kid.

Totally. Anyway, have you ever wondered why the negatively-charged electrons and the positively-charged protons don’t just merge into each other and form a neutral neutron? I mean, they’re sitting there in the atom’s nucleus pretty close to each other. Like, if you had two magnets that close, they’d stick together immediately.

I guess now that you mention it, yeah, it is weird.

Well, it’s because there’s another force deep in the atom that’s preventing them from merging.

It’s really really strong.

The only way to overcome this force is to have a huge amount of matter in a really hot, dense space — basically shove them into each other until they give up and stick together and become a neutron. This happens in very large stars that have been around for a while — the core collapses, and in the aftermath, the electrons in the star are so close to the protons, and under so much pressure, that they suddenly merge. There’s a big explosion and the outer material of the star is sloughed off.

Okay, so you’re saying under a lot of pressure and in certain conditions, some stars collapse and become big balls of neutrons?

Pretty much, yeah.

So why do the neutrons just stick around in a huge ball? Aren’t they neutral? What’s keeping them together? 

Gravity, mostly. But also the strong nuclear force, that aforementioned weird strong force. This isn’t something you’d encounter on a macroscopic scale — the strong force only really works at the type of distances typified by particles in atomic nuclei. And it’s different, fundamentally, than the electromagnetic force, which is what makes magnets attract and repel and what makes your hair stick up when you rub a balloon on it.

So these neutrons in a big ball are bound by gravity, but also sticking together by virtue of the strong nuclear force. 

So basically, the new ball of neutrons is really small, at least, compared to how heavy it is. That’s because the neutrons are all clumped together as if this neutron star is one giant atomic nucleus — which it kinda is. It’s like a giant atom made only of neutrons. If our sun were a neutron star, it would be less than 20 miles wide. It would also not be something you would ever want to get near.

Got it. That means two giant balls of neutrons that weighed like, more than our sun and were only ten-ish miles wide, suddenly smashed into each other, and in the aftermath created a black hole, and we are just now detecting it on Earth?

Exactly. Pretty weird, no?

Spencer does a good job of gradually taking you through increasingly complex explanations.

For those with artistic interests, Neel V. Patel tries to answer a question about how artists knew what draw when neutron stars collided in his Oct. 18, 2017 piece for Slate.com,

All of these things make this discovery easy to marvel at and somewhat impossible to picture. Luckily, artists have taken up the task of imagining it for us, which you’ve likely seen if you’ve already stumbled on coverage of the discovery. Two bright, furious spheres of light and gas spiraling quickly into one another, resulting in a massive swell of lit-up matter along with light and gravitational waves rippling off speedily in all directions, towards parts unknown. These illustrations aren’t just alluring interpretations of a rare phenomenon; they are, to some extent, the translation of raw data and numbers into a tangible visual that gives scientists and nonscientists alike some way of grasping what just happened. But are these visualizations realistic? Is this what it actually looked like? No one has any idea. Which is what makes the scientific illustrators’ work all the more fascinating.

“My goal is to represent what the scientists found,” says Aurore Simmonet, a scientific illustrator based at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. Even though she said she doesn’t have a rigorous science background (she certainly didn’t know what a kilonova was before being tasked to illustrate one), she also doesn’t believe that type of experience is an absolute necessity. More critical, she says, is for the artist to have an interest in the subject matter and in learning new things, as well as a capacity to speak directly to scientists about their work.

Illustrators like Simmonet usually start off work on an illustration by asking the scientist what’s the biggest takeaway a viewer should grasp when looking at a visual. Unfortunately, this latest discovery yielded a multitude of papers emphasizing different conclusions and highlights. With so many scientific angles, there’s a stark challenge in trying to cram every important thing into a single drawing.

Clearly, however, the illustrations needed to center around the kilonova. Simmonet loves colors, so she began by discussing with the researchers what kind of color scheme would work best. The smash of two neutron stars lends itself well to deep, vibrant hues. Simmonet and Robin Dienel at the Carnegie Institution for Science elected to use a wide array of colors and drew bright cracking to show pressure forming at the merging. Others, like Luis Calcada at the European Southern Observatory, limited the color scheme in favor of emphasizing the bright moment of collision and the signal waves created by the kilonova.

Animators have even more freedom to show the event, since they have much more than a single frame to play with. The Conceptual Image Lab at NASA’s [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Goddard Space Flight Center created a short video about the new findings, and lead animator Brian Monroe says the video he and his colleagues designed shows off the evolution of the entire process: the rising action, climax, and resolution of the kilonova event.

The illustrators try to adhere to what the likely physics of the event entailed, soliciting feedback from the scientists to make sure they’re getting it right. The swirling of gas, the direction of ejected matter upon impact, the reflection of light, the proportions of the objects—all of these things are deliberately framed such that they make scientific sense. …

Do take a look at Patel’s piece, if for no other reason than to see all of the images he has embedded there. You may recognize Aurore Simmonet’s name from the credit line in the second image I have embedded here.

Metallic nanoflowers produce neuron-like fractals

I was a bit surprised to find that this University of Oregon story was about a patent. Here’s more from a July 28, 2015 news item on Azonano,

Richard Taylor’s vision of using artificial fractal-based implants to restore sight to the blind — part of a far-reaching concept that won an innovation award this year from the White House — is now covered under a broad U.S. patent.

The patent goes far beyond efforts to use the emerging technology to restore eyesight. It covers all fractal-designed electronic implants that link signaling activity with nerves for any purpose in animal and human biology.

Fractals are objects with irregular curves or shapes. “They are a trademark building block of nature,” said Taylor, a professor of physics and director of the Materials Science Institute at the University of Oregon [UO]. “In math, that property is self-similarity. Trees, clouds, rivers, galaxies, lungs and neurons are fractals. What we hope to do is adapt the technology to nature’s geometry.”

Named in U.S. patent 9079017 are Taylor, the UO, Taylor’s research collaborator Simon Brown, and Brown’s home institution, the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

A July 28, 2015 University of Oregon news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jim Barlow, which originated the news item, continues the patent celebration,

“We’re very delighted,” Taylor said. “The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has recognized the novelty and utility of our general concept, but there is a lot to do. We want to get all of the fundamental science sorted out. We’re looking at least another couple of years of basic science before moving forward.”

The patent solidifies the relationship between the two universities, said Charles Williams, associate vice president for innovation at the UO. “This is still in the very early days. This project has attracted national attention, awards and grants.

“We hope to engage the right set of partners to develop the technology over time as the concept moves into potentially vast forms of medical applications,” Williams added. “Dr. Taylor’s interdisciplinary science is a hallmark of the creativity at the University of Oregon and a great example of the international research collaborations that our faculty engage in every day.”

Here’s an image illustrating the ‘fractal neurons’,

FractalImplant

Caption: Retinal neurons, outlined in yellow, attach to and follows branches of a fractal interconnect. Such connections, says University of Oregon physicist Richard Taylor, could some day help to treat eye diseases such as macular degeneration. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Taylor

The news release goes on to describe the ‘fractal approach’ to eye implants which is markedly different from the implants entering the marketplace,

Taylor raised the idea of a fractal-based approach to treat eye diseases in a 2011 article in Physics World, writing that it could overcome problems associated with efforts to insert photodiodes behind the eyes. Current chip technology doesn’t allow sufficient connections with neurons.

“The wiring — the neurons — in the retina is fractal, but the chips are not fractal,” Taylor said. His vision, based on research with Brown, is to grow nanoflowers seeded from nanoparticles of metals that self assemble in a natural process, producing fractals that mimic and communicate with neurons.

It is conceivable, Taylor said, that fractal interconnects — as the implants are called in the patent — could be shaped so they network with like-shaped neurons to address narrow needs, such as a feedback loop for the sensation of touch from a prosthetic arm or leg to the brain.

Such implants would overcome the biological rejection of implants with smooth surfaces or those randomly patterned that have been developed in a trial-and-error approach to link to neurons.

Once perfected, he said, the implants would generate an electrical field that would fool a sea of glial cells that insulate and protect neurons from foreign invaders. Fractal interconnects would allow electrical signals to operate in “a safety zone biologically” that avoids toxicity issues.

“The patent covers any generic interface for connecting any electronics to any nerve,” Taylor said, adding that fractal interconnects are not electrodes. “Our interface is multifunctional. The primary thing is to get the electrical field into the system so that reaches the neurons and induces the signal.”

Taylor’s proposal for using fractal-based technology earned the top prize in a contest held by the innovation company InnoCentive. Taylor was honored in April [2015] at a meeting of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The competition was sponsored by a collaboration of science philanthropies including the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Kavli Foundation, the Templeton Foundation and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

You can find out more about InnoCentive here. As for other types of artificial eye implants, the latest here is a June 30, 2015 post titled, Clinical trial for bionic eye (artificial retinal implant) shows encouraging results (safety and efficacy).

Kavli nanoscience and microbiomes

It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned the Kavli Foundation, which is dedicated to “advancing basic science for humanity.” On this occasion,  there’s a Feb. 12, 2015 news item on Nanowerk featuring a Kavli Foundation discussion about nanoscience and microbiomes,

Microbiomes, communities of one-celled organisms, are everywhere in nature. They play important roles in health and agriculture, yet we know surprisingly little about them. Nanoscience might help.

In a far-ranging discussion, two top researchers spoke with the Kavli Foundation about how nanoscience can help us understand and manipulate natural microbiomes.

Microbiomes are communities of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae, other one-celled microbes, and viruses that interact with one another in complex ways. These ecosystems are enormously complex. A few grams of soil or marine sediment might contain as many as several hundred thousand different species of microbes.

“There are all these amazing chemistries that microbes perform that can do really wonderful things for humanity, like providing new antibiotics and nutrients for crops. It’s pretty much an unlimited resource of novelty and chemistry—if we can develop improved tools to tap into it,” said Eoin Brodie, a staff scientist in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Ecology Department.

In the past, researchers have sought to understand these communities by growing different microbes in cultures and observing their behaviors. Yet only a small fraction of these microorganisms grow in pure cultures.

Nanoscience could provide new ways to unravel these complex ecosystems, according to Jack Gilbert, a principle investigator at Argonne National Laboratory’s Biosciences Division.

You can continue reading either on Nanowerk or here on the Kavli website where you’ll find the Kavli Foundation is having a series of conversations about microbiomes, which you may want to check out. This conversation with Brodie and Gilbert seems to be in aid of an upcoming Google Hangout,

Spotlight Live: Thinking Smaller – How Nanoscience Can Help Us Understand Nature’s Many Microbiomes
Wednesday, March 4 – 11:00 am PST

Join us here on March 4 for a live Google Hangout with Eoin Brodie and Jack A. Gilbert. Questions can be submitted by email or via Twitter with the hashtag: #KavliLive. For updates, follow The Kavli Foundation on Twitter and Facebook.

‘Nano fest’ at the 245th meeting of the American Chemical Society

The American Chemical Society’s (ACS) 245th meeting (April 7 – 11, 2013) features a few items about nanotechnology: the funding of it and the toxicological testing of it, in two separate news items which bear a ‘political’ link.

An April 9, 2013 news item on Azonano tells of concerns regarding recent funding cuts resulting from the US budget sequestration,

Speaking at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, A. Paul Alivisatos, Ph.D., expressed concern that the cuts come when nanotechnology is poised to deliver on those promises. He told the meeting, which continues through Thursday, that ill-conceived cuts could set back America’s progress in nanotechnology by decades.

“The National Science Foundation announced that they will issue a thousand fewer new grants this year because of sequestration,” said Alivisatos, referring to the across-the-board mandatory federal budget cuts that took effect on March 1. “What it means in practice is that an entire generation of early career scientists, some of our brightest and most promising scientists, will not have the funding to launch their careers and begin research properly, in the pathway that has established the United States as leader in nanotechnology research. It will be a setback, perhaps quite serious, for our international competitiveness in this key field.”

Alivisatos described applications of nanotechnology that can help reduce fossil fuel consumption and the accompanying emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. He is professor of chemistry and materials science and the Larry and Diane Bock Professor of Nanotechnology at the University of California at Berkeley, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and co-editor of the ACS journal Nano Letters. …

Alivisatos expressed concern, however, that cuts in federal funding will take a heavy toll on the still-emerging field. He explained that the reductions stand to affect scientists at almost every stage of making contributions to society. Young scientists, for instance, will find it more difficult to launch research programs in new and promising fields.[emphases mine]  Established scientists will have to trim research programs, and may not have the money to explore promising new leads.

“We haven’t been able to communicate adequately with the public and policymakers, and explain the impact of what may sound like small and unimportant cuts in funding.” Alivisatos said. “A 5 percent reduction in funding — well, to the public, it seems like nothing. In reality, these cuts will be applied in ways that do maximal damage to our ability to be globally competitive in the future.”

Coincidentally or not,  the ACS had placed an Apr. 8, 2013 news release on EurekAlert highlighting some work in the field of nanotoxicology led by a ‘young’ scientist (I imagine she received her funding prior to sequestration) doing some exciting work,

Earlier efforts to determine the health and environmental effects of the nanoparticles that are finding use in hundreds of consumer products may have produced misleading results by embracing traditional toxicology tests that do not take into account the unique properties of bits of material so small that 100,000 could fit in the period at the end of this sentence.

That was among the observations presented here today at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, by one of the emerging leaders in nanoscience research. The talk by Christy Haynes, Ph.D., was among almost 12,000 presentations at the gathering, which organizers expect to attract more than 14,000 scientists and others.

Haynes delivered the inaugural Kavli Foundation Emerging Leader in Chemistry Lecture at the meeting, … Sponsored by the Kavli Foundation, the Emerging Leaders Lectures recognize the work of outstanding young chemical scientists. [emphasis mine] …

“Christy Haynes is the perfect scientist to launch this prestigious lecture series,” said Marinda Li Wu, Ph.D., president of the ACS. “Haynes’ research is making an impact in the scientific community in efforts to use nanoparticles and nanotechnology in medicine and other fields. And that research has sparked the popular imagination, as well. Haynes was included in Popular Science‘s ‘Brilliant 10’ list, a group of ‘geniuses shaking up science today.’ [emphasis mine] We are delighted to collaborate with the Kavli Foundation in highlighting the contributions of such individuals.”

Moving on from politics to science, the EurekAlert Apr. 8, 2013 news release offers a standard discussion regarding gold and nanoparticle gold before highlighting the aspect that marks Haynes’ fresh approach to toxicity at the nanoscale,

A 1-ounce nugget of pure gold, for instance, has the same chemical and physical properties as a 2-ounce nugget or a 27-pound gold bar. For nanoparticles, however, size often dictates the physical and chemical properties, and those properties change as the size decreases.

Haynes said that some of the earlier nanotoxicology tests did not fully take those and other factors into account when evaluating the effects of nanoparticles. In some cases, for instance, the bottom line in those tests was whether cells growing in laboratory cultures lived or died after exposure to a nanoparticle.

“While these results can be useful, there are two important limitations,” Haynes explained. “A cell can be alive but unable to function properly, and it would not be apparent in those tests. In addition, the nature of nanoparticles — they’re more highly reactive — can cause ‘false positives’ in these assays.”

Haynes described a new approach used in her team’s work in evaluating the toxicity of nanoparticles. It focuses on monitoring how exposure to nanoparticles affects a cell’s ability to function normally, rather than just its ability to survive the exposure. In addition, they have implemented measures to reduce “false-positive” test results, which overestimate nanoparticle toxicity. One of the team’s safety tests, for instance, determines whether key cells in the immune system can still work normally after exposure to nanoparticles. In another, the scientists determine whether bacteria exposed to nanoparticles can still communicate with each other, engaging in the critical biochemical chatter that enables bacteria to form biofilms, communities essential for them to multiply in ways that lead to infections.

“So far, we have found that nanoparticles made of silver or titanium may be the most problematic, though I would say that neither is as bad as some of the alarmist media speculations, especially when they are stabilized appropriately,” said Haynes. “I think that it will be possible to create safe, stable coatings on nanoparticles that will make them stable and allow them to leave the body appropriately. We need more research, of course, in order to make informed decisions.”

Hopefully, you find this mixture of science and politics as interesting as I do.

ETA Apr. 10, 2013: Dexter Johnson has commented on and provided some contextual information about nanotechnology research funding in the US in response to the Alivisatos talk about sequestration and its possible impact on nanotechnology research in Apr. 9, 2013 posting (Note: A link has been removed),

There is always room for the argument that reassessing and reallocating resources can help make nanotechnology more efficient and productive, something observers have pointed out in NASA taking on less of its own nanotechnology research and outsourcing it to other government organizations. But it’s not always easy to tell which fundamental research projects will turn out to have been the most productive, and worse, the timing of these cuts could be extremely painful as they occur at a critical moment for U.S. nanotechnology.

Dexter’s piece is well worth reading.

Congratulations to Mildred Dresselhaus, winner of the 2012 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience

A pioneer in the field, Mildred Dresselhaus has been recognized for her work in nanoscience by the Kavli Foundation. From the May 31, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Mildred S. Dresselhaus is recognized with the Kavli Prize for Nanoscience for her seminal contributions to the science of carbon-based nanostructures and for her elucidation of the electron-phonon interaction on the nanoscale.

Dresselhaus has laid the foundation for our understanding of the influence of reduced dimensionality on the fundamental thermal and electrical properties of materials. Her early work on graphite intercalation compounds and carbon fibers presaged the discoveries of C60, the fullerenes, nanotubes, and graphene. She investigated the effects of phonon confinement and electron-phonon interactions in nanostructures, and provided the key insights that underlie today’s research into nanostructured thermoelectrics. She showed that in nanostructures it is possible to decouple thermal and electrical transport, with significant implications for energy use. Thanks to Dresselhaus’s work, we have an improved understanding of how energy flows and dissipates on the nanoscale.

The 2012 Kavli Nanoscience Citation webpage contextualizes her achievements,

The story of carbon is interwoven with the story of nanoscience. The 1996 Chemistry Nobel Prize for the discovery of fullerenes, the 2008 Kavli Nanoscience Prize for the discovery of nanotubes, and the 2010 Physics Nobel Prize for graphene all recognize the remarkable phenomena that occur in highly controlled carbon-based nanostructures. As early as the 1960’s, Dresselhaus led one of the very first groups that explored the carbon materials that form the basis for 2D graphene and 1D carbon nanotubes. These early experiments helped to map out the electronic band structure of these materials, critical to further understanding the unique properties they might possess. Dresselhaus studied intercalated two-dimensional graphene sheets and provided important insights into the properties of not only 2D graphene, but also of the rich interactions between graphene and the surrounding materials. Her early work on carbon fibers, beginning in the 1980’s, provided Dresselhaus with the understanding and perspective to postulate the existence and unusual attributes of one-dimensional ‘single wall carbon nanotubes (SWNTs)’, years in advance of their actual discovery. A key prediction included the possibility that SWNTs could behave like either metals or semiconductors, depending on their chirality. Dresselhaus and coworkers pointed out that nanotubes can be viewed as arising from the folding of a single sheet of carbon, like a piece of paper that is wrapped at different spiral angles. They showed that this very simple rearrangement of their structure completely controlled their properties. This prediction was subsequently shown to be true. Through her studies of the fundamental physics of carbon-based solids, Dresselhaus laid the foundation for knowledge that has been integral to today’s nanoscience of carbon.

Dresselhaus studied the transport and optical properties of nanostructured matter with an exquisite selection of experimental techniques providing unprecedented microscopic understanding. Regarding carbon nanostructures, she pioneered Raman spectroscopy as a sensitive tool for the characterization of materials one atomic layer in wall thickness, namely carbon nanotubes and graphene. Diameter selective resonance enhancement led to the observation of Raman spectra from one single nanotube. The high sensitivity of Raman spectroscopy to diameter and chirality made the technique the prime method for the characterization of carbon nanotubes. The success story has been seamlessly adapted to the characterization of graphene and is in use in hundreds of laboratories worldwide as a fundamental diagnostic tool for carbon-based nanostructures.

Materials are held together by electrons shared between atoms. When the energy of an electron in a solid is altered, the local bonding of the solid is perturbed, resulting in a change in the position of the atoms that make up the solid. In nanoscale materials, the spatial extent of electrons and phonons can be modulated, leading to dramatically different behaviors compared with extended solids. Dresselhaus has investigated this very fundamental electron–phonon interaction in nanostructures using the powerful techniques of Raman and Resonance Raman spectroscopy.

This science also laid a foundation for practical work today aimed at controlling how energy flows. Thermoelectric materials have the ability to convert heat energy to an electrical signal or, alternatively, to utilize electrical energy to actively cool a material. Nature provides materials in which the electrical and thermal conductivity are strongly linked, resulting in a seeming limit to the achievable efficiency of a thermoelectric. Dresselhaus demonstrated that in a one-dimensional structure, it is possible to separately adjust electrical and thermal conductivity, and that this should allow the creation of new generations of thermoelectric refrigerators and new ways of scavenging waste heat for useful purposes.

Dresselhaus recently co-published a paper about developing a new material, a bismuth-antimony film (mentioned in my April 27, 2012 posting). The Wikipedia essay on Mildred Dresselhaus notes that she was born November 11, 1930 and is currently a professor at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Note the absence of the word, emerita*.

May 2012 has been an interesting month, I’ve had the opportunity to feature both a octogenerian* and a teenager (Janelle Tam [mentioned in my May 11, 2012 posting]) who prove you can contribute to your chosen field at almost any age.

*’Emeritus’ corrected to ’emerita’ and ‘nonogenerian’ corrected to ‘octogenerian’ on Feb. 22, 2017.

Nanodiagnostics: a roundtable at Kavli and new report from Cientifica

The Kavli Foundation, based in California, held a roundtable discussion on ‘Fighting Cancer with Nanotechnology‘ which focused largely on diagnostics and drug delivery. According to a March 14, 2012 news item on Nanowerk, the four participants were:

  • Anna Barker – Former Deputy Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and current Director of Arizona State University’s Transformative Healthcare Networks;
  • Mark E. Davis – Professor of Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and a member of the Experimental Therapeutics Program of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the City of Hope;
  • James Heath – Professor of Chemistry at Caltech and a founding Board member of Caltech’s Kavli Nanoscience Institute;
  • Michael Phelps – Norton Simon Professor, and Chair of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at the University of California Los Angeles.

The researchers discussed how nanotechnology holds the promise of revolutionizing the way medicine wages war against cancer, from providing new ways to combine drugs to delivering gene-silencing therapeutics for cancer cells. [emphasis mine]

Yet again, war has been used as a metaphor for healing. I particularly appreciate the way ‘revolution’, which resonates with US audiences in a very particular way, has been introduced.

The discussion features diagnostics,

JAMES HEATH: That is certainly an important application. A typical diagnostic test measures only a single protein. But the nature of cancer—even a single cancer type—is that it can vary significantly from patient to patient. The implication is that there is probably not a single protein biomarker that can distinguish between such patient variations. Even to confidently address a single diagnostic question may take measuring several protein biomarkers. Discovering the right biomarkers is extremely challenging—you might have 300 candidate biomarkers from which you want to choose just six, but you will likely have to test all 300 on a very large patient pool to determine the best six. That’s tough to do with existing technologies because each protein measurement requires a large sample of blood or tumor tissue, and each measurement is time-consuming, labor intensive and expensive. With some of the emerging nanotechnologies, a large panel of candidate protein biomarkers can be rapidly measured from just a pinprick of blood, or a tissue sample as small as a single cell. This allows one to accelerate the development of conventional diagnostic tests, but it also opens up the possibilities for fundamentally new diagnostic approaches. These are opportunities that nanotech is bringing into play that simply weren’t there before.

Here’s one of my favourite comments,

MICHAEL PHELPS: Yes. All of us developing therapeutics want to have a transparent patient—to see where the drug goes throughout all tissues of the body, whether it hits the disease target in a sufficient dose to induce the desired therapeutic effect on the target, and where else the drug goes in the body regarding side effects. [emphasis mine] PET [positron emission tomography ‘scan’] can reveal all this. For this reason almost all drug companies now use PET in their discovery and development processes.

I suspect Phelps was a bit over enthused and spoke without thinking. I’m sure most doctors and researchers would agree that what they want is to heal without harm and not transparent patients. That’s why they’re so excited about nanotechnology and therapeutics, they’re trying to eliminate or, at least, lessen harm in the healing process. It would be nice though if they get past the ‘war’ metaphors and dreams of transparent patients.

I found the comments about the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration), pharmaceutical companies and biotech startups quite interesting,

ANNA BARKER: These challenges are mostly related to perception and having the tools to demonstrate that the agent does what you say it does. It’s more difficult for nanotherapeutics than for other drugs because they employ a new set of technologies that the FDA is more guarded about approving. The FDA is responsible for the health of the American public, so they are very careful about putting anything new into the population. So the challenges have to do with showing you can deliver what you said you were going to deliver to the target, and that the toxicity and distribution of the agent in the body is what you predicted. You have to have different measures than what is included in the classic toxicology testing packages we use for potential drugs.

MARK DAVIS: There’s so much cool science that people want to do, but you’re limited in what you can do in patients for a number of reasons. One is financial. This area is not being pushed forward by big Pharma, but by biotech companies, and they have limited resources. Secondly, the FDA is still learning about these innovations, they can limit what you are allowed to do in a clinical trial. For example, when we did the first clinical trial with a nanoparticle that had a targeting agent enabling it to latch onto a specific receptor on cancer cells and a gene silencing payload, we realized it would be important to know if patients have this receptor and the gene target of the payload to begin with. Prebiopsies from patients before testing the nanotherapeutic on them to see if the tumor cells had this receptor and gene target in abundance would have been helpful. However, in this first-in-man trial, the FDA did not allow required biopsies, and they were performed on a volunteer-basis only.

It is a fascinating discussion as it provides insight into the field of nanotherapeutics and into the some of the researchers.

On the topic of nanodiagnostics but this time focusing on the business end of things, a new report has been released by Cientifica. From the March 13, 2012 press release,

Nanodiagnostics will be a $50-billion market by 2021; Cientifica’s “Nanotechnology for Medical Diagnostics” looks at emerging nanoscale technologies

Following on from Cientifica’s Nanotechnology for Drug Delivery report series, “Nanotechnology for Medical Diagnostics,” a 237-page report, takes a comprehensive look at current and emerging nanoscale technologies used for medical diagnostics.

Areas examined include quantum dots, gold nanoparticles, exosomes, nanoporous silica, nanowires, micro- and nanocantilever arrays, carbon nanotubes, ion channel switch nanobiosensors, and many more.

Cientifica estimates medical imaging is the sector showing the highest growth and impact of nanomaterials. Already a $1.7-billion market, with gold nanoparticle applications accounting for $959 million, imaging will continue to be the largest nanodiagnostics sector, with gold nanoparticles, quantum dots and nanobiosensors all easily exceeding $10 billion.

“Getting onboard with the right technology at the right time is crucial,” said Harper [Tim Harper, Cientifica’s Chief Executive Officer]. “The use of exosomes in diagnosis, for instance, a relatively new technique and a tiny market, is set to reach close to half a billion dollars by 2021.”

You can find out more and/or purchase the report here.

I have written about Cientifica’s  Nanotechnology for Drug Delivery (NDD) white paper here and have published an interview with Tim Harper about global nanotechnology funding and economic impacts here.