Tag Archives: Maurizio Prato

A carbon nanotube ‘bridge’ for nerves

Italian researchers have developed a three-dimensional carbon nanotube sponge (or bridge) that could be used in conjunction with neural explants according to a July 15, 2016 SISSA press release (also on EurekAlert), which describes the work,

A complex study, lasting several years and involving work groups with specialties in various fields, has shown that a new material (a three-dimensional sponge made of carbon nanotubes) supports the growth of nerve fibers, bridging segregated neural explants and providing a functional re-connection. The study, which was coordinated by the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, in collaboration with the University of Rome Tor Vergata and the University of Trieste, also observed biocompatibility in vivo of the material, demonstrating that implanting it into  the brain of small rodents does not cause large scars or a marked immune response.

“Under the microscope, it looks like a knotted tangle of tubes. It was initially studied by Maurizio De Crescenzi’s team at the University of Rome Tor Vergata for cleaning up spilled hydrocarbons in the sea,” explains Laura Ballerini, SISSA Professor and coordinator of the recently-published study. It was Maurizio Prato’s intuition, however, that pushed them to investigate the possibility of applying such a material to nerve tissue. The idea of developing the hybrids of neurons and nano-materials was the result of a long-term project and collaboration between Prato (University of Trieste) and Ballerini’s (SISSA) groups.

In the present study, Ballerini and her team first investigated the material’s reaction to nerve tissue in vitro. “We explanted two spinal cord segments and cultured them together but separated by 300 microns,” says Sadaf Usmani, a PhD student at the School and first author of the study. “In those conditions, without any scaffolds reconstructing the space between the two explants, we observed growth of nerve fibers which extended in a straight bundles in any direction, but not necessarily towards the other tissue. If we insert a small piece of the carbon sponge into the space between the two, however, we see dense growth of nerve fibers that fill the structure and intertwine with the other sample.”

“Observing fiber reaching the contralateral explant is not enough, however,” points out University of Trieste researcher and one of the authors of the study, Denis Scaini. “You have to show that there is a functional connection between the two populations of neurons.” For this, SISSA Professor, David Zoccolan and his team’s contribution was crucial. “With signal analysis techniques they had already developed, we were able to demonstrate two things: first, that spontaneous nervous activity in the two samples was actually correlated, indicating a connection, that was not there when the sponge was absent, and second,, that by applying an electrical signal to one of the samples, the activity of the second sample could be triggered, but only when the nanotubes were present.”

Tests for Biocompatibility

The results in the lab were extremely positive. But this was not sufficient for Ballerini and her colleagues. “In order to continue to invest additional energy and resources to the study for potential applications, is crucial to test if the material is accepted by living organisms without negative consequences,” says Ballerini.

To perform these tests, Ballerini’s team worked closely with SISSA Post-Doc researcher, and member of Zoccolan’s team, Federica Rosselli. “We implanted small portions of the material into the brain of healthy rodents. After four weeks, we observed that the material was well tolerated. There were limited scars, as well as low immune responses, some biological indicators even showed that there could be positive implications. There was also a progressive invasion of neurons within the sponge. The rats were vital and healthy during the entire four weeks,” says Usmani.

“In conclusion,” says Ballerini, “the excellent results at the structural and functional level in vitro and in vivo showed biocompatibility are encouraging us to continue this line of research. These materials could be useful for covering electrodes used for treating movement disorders like Parkinson’s because they are well accepted by tissue, while the implants being used today become less effective over time because of scar tissue. We hope this encourages other research teams with multidisciplinary expertise to expand this type of study even further.”

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

3D meshes of carbon nanotubes guide functional reconnection of segregated spinal explants by Sadaf Usmani, Emily Rose Aurand, Manuela Medelin, Alessandra Fabbro, Denis Scaini, Jummi Laishram, Federica B. Rosselli, Alessio Ansuini, Davide Zoccola1, Manuela Scarselli, Maurizio De Crescenzi, Susanna Bosi, Maurizio Prato, and Laura Ballerini. Science Advances  15 Jul 2016: Vol. 2, no. 7, e1600087 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600087 Published 01 July 2016

This paper is open access.

H/t July 15, 2016 news item on phys.org.

Calming a synapse (part of a neuron) with graphene flakes

As we continue to colonize our own brains, there’s more news of graphene and neurons (see my Feb. 1, 2016 post featuring research from the same team in Italy featured in this post). A May 10, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily highlights work that could be used for epilepsy,

Innovative graphene technology to buffer the activity of synapses– this is the idea behind a recently-published study in the journal ACS Nano coordinated by the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste (SISSA) and the University of Trieste. In particular, the study showed how effective graphene oxide flakes are at interfering with excitatory synapses, an effect that could prove useful in new treatments for diseases like epilepsy.

I guess the press release took a while to make its way through translation, here’s more from the April 10, 2016 SISSA (International School for Advanced Studies) press release (also on EurekAlert),

The laboratory of SISSA’s Laura Ballerini in collaboration with the University of Trieste, the University of Manchester and the University of Castilla -la Mancha, has discovered a new approach to modulating synapses. This methodology could be useful for treating diseases in which electrical nerve activity is altered. Ballerini and Maurizio Prato (University of Trieste) are the principal investigators of the project within the European flagship on graphene, a far-reaching 10-year international collaboration (one billion euros in funding) that studies innovative uses of the material.

Traditional treatments for neurological diseases generally include drugs that act on the brain or neurosurgery. Today however, graphene technology is showing promise for these types of applications, and is receiving increased attention from the scientific community. The method studied by Ballerini and colleagues uses “graphene nano-ribbons” (flakes) which buffer activity of synapses simply by being present.

“We administered aqueous solutions of graphene flakes to cultured neurons in ‘chronic’ exposure conditions, repeating the operation every day for a week. Analyzing functional neuronal electrical activity, we then traced the effect on synapses” says Rossana Rauti, SISSA researcher and first author of the study.

In the experiments, size of the flakes varied (10 microns or 80 nanometers) as well as the type of graphene: in one condition graphene was used, in another, graphene oxide. “The ‘buffering’ effect on synaptic activity happens only with smaller flakes of graphene oxide and not in other conditions,” says Ballerini. “The effect, in the system we tested, is selective for the excitatory synapses, while it is absent in inhibitory ones”

A Matter of Size

What is the origin of this selectivity? “We know that in principle graphene does not interact chemically with synapses in a significant way- its effect is likely due to the mere presence of synapses,” explains SISSA researcher and one of the study’s authors, Denis Scaini. “We do not yet have direct evidence, but our hypothesis is that there is a link with the sub-cellular organization of the synaptic space.”

A synapse is a contact point between one neuron and another where the nervous electrical signal “jumps” between a pre and post-synaptic unit. [emphasis mine] There is a small gap or discontinuity where the electrical signal is “translated” by a neurotransmitter and released by pre-synaptic termination into the extracellular space and reabsorbed by the postsynaptic space, to be translated again into an electrical signal. The access to this space varies depending on the type of synapses: “For the excitatory synapses, the structure’s organization allows higher exposure for the graphene flakes interaction, unlike inhibitory synapses, which are less physically accessible in this experimental model,” says Scaini.

Another clue that distance and size could be crucial in the process is found in the observation that graphene performs its function only in the oxidized form. “Normal graphene looks like a stretched and stiff sheet while graphene oxide appears crumpled, and thus possibly favoring interface with the synaptic space, ” adds Rauti.

Administering graphene flake solutions leaves the neurons alive and intact. For this reason the team thinks they could be used in biomedical applications for treating certain diseases. “We may imagine to target a drug by exploiting the apparent flakes’ selectivity for synapses, thus targeting directly the basic functional unit of neurons”concludes Ballerini.

That’s a nice description of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters.

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

Graphene Oxide Nanosheets Reshape Synaptic Function in Cultured Brain Networks by Rossana Rauti, Neus Lozano, Veronica León, Denis Scaini†, Mattia Musto, Ilaria Rago, Francesco P. Ulloa Severino, Alessandra Fabbro, Loredana Casalis, Ester Vázquez, Kostas Kostarelos, Maurizio Prato, and Laura Ballerini. ACS Nano, 2016, 10 (4), pp 4459–4471
DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b00130 Publication Date (Web): March 31, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Graphene and neurons in a UK-Italy-Spain collaboration

There’s been a lot of talk about using graphene-based implants in the brain due to the material’s flexibility along with its other properties. A step forward has been taking according to a Jan. 29, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Researchers have successfully demonstrated how it is possible to interface graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – with neurons, or nerve cells, while maintaining the integrity of these vital cells. The work may be used to build graphene-based electrodes that can safely be implanted in the brain, offering promise for the restoration of sensory functions for amputee or paralysed patients, or for individuals with motor disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease.

A Jan. 29, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Previously, other groups had shown that it is possible to use treated graphene to interact with neurons. However the signal to noise ratio from this interface was very low. By developing methods of working with untreated graphene, the researchers retained the material’s electrical conductivity, making it a significantly better electrode.

“For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Trieste in Italy. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signalling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.”

Our understanding of the brain has increased to such a degree that by interfacing directly between the brain and the outside world we can now harness and control some of its functions. For instance, by measuring the brain’s electrical impulses, sensory functions can be recovered. This can be used to control robotic arms for amputee patients or any number of basic processes for paralysed patients – from speech to movement of objects in the world around them. Alternatively, by interfering with these electrical impulses, motor disorders (such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s) can start to be controlled.

Scientists have made this possible by developing electrodes that can be placed deep within the brain. These electrodes connect directly to neurons and transmit their electrical signals away from the body, allowing their meaning to be decoded.

However, the interface between neurons and electrodes has often been problematic: not only do the electrodes need to be highly sensitive to electrical impulses, but they need to be stable in the body without altering the tissue they measure.

Too often the modern electrodes used for this interface (based on tungsten or silicon) suffer from partial or complete loss of signal over time. This is often caused by the formation of scar tissue from the electrode insertion, which prevents the electrode from moving with the natural movements of the brain due to its rigid nature.

Graphene has been shown to be a promising material to solve these problems, because of its excellent conductivity, flexibility, biocompatibility and stability within the body.

Based on experiments conducted in rat brain cell cultures, the researchers found that untreated graphene electrodes interfaced well with neurons. By studying the neurons with electron microscopy and immunofluorescence the researchers found that they remained healthy, transmitting normal electric impulses and, importantly, none of the adverse reactions which lead to the damaging scar tissue were seen.

According to the researchers, this is the first step towards using pristine graphene-based materials as an electrode for a neuro-interface. In future, the researchers will investigate how different forms of graphene, from multiple layers to monolayers, are able to affect neurons, and whether tuning the material properties of graphene might alter the synapses and neuronal excitability in new and unique ways. “Hopefully this will pave the way for better deep brain implants to both harness and control the brain, with higher sensitivity and fewer unwanted side effects,” said Ballerini.

“We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications,” said Professor Maurizio Prato from the University of Trieste. “In this scenario, the development and translation in neurology of graphene-based high-performance biodevices requires the exploration of the interactions between graphene nano- and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signalling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is only a first step in that direction.”

“These initial results show how we are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of graphene and related materials in bio-applications and medicine,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “The expertise developed at the Cambridge Graphene Centre allows us to produce large quantities of pristine material in solution, and this study proves the compatibility of our process with neuro-interfaces.”

The research was funded by the Graphene Flagship [emphasis mine],  a European initiative which promotes a collaborative approach to research with an aim of helping to translate graphene out of the academic laboratory, through local industry and into society.

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

Graphene-Based Interfaces Do Not Alter Target Nerve Cells by Alessandra Fabbro, Denis Scaini, Verónica León, Ester Vázquez, Giada Cellot, Giulia Privitera, Lucia Lombardi, Felice Torrisi, Flavia Tomarchio, Francesco Bonaccorso, Susanna Bosi, Andrea C. Ferrari, Laura Ballerini, and Maurizio Prato. ACS Nano, 2016, 10 (1), pp 615–623 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b05647 Publication Date (Web): December 23, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

There are a couple things I found a bit odd about this project. First, all of the funding is from the Graphene Flagship initiative. I was expecting to see at least some funding from the European Union’s other mega-sized science initiative, the Human Brain Project. Second, there was no mention of Spain nor were there any quotes from the Spanish researchers. For the record, the Spanish institutions represented were: University of Castilla-La Mancha, Carbon Nanobiotechnology Laboratory, and the Basque Foundation for Science.

A 2nd European roadmap for graphene

About 2.5 years ago there was an article titled, “A roadmap for graphene” (behind a paywall) which Nature magazine published online in Oct. 2012. I see at least two of the 2012 authors, Konstantin (Kostya) Novoselov and Vladimir Fal’ko,, are party to this second, more comprehensive roadmap featured in a Feb. 24, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

In October 2013, academia and industry came together to form the Graphene Flagship. Now with 142 partners in 23 countries, and a growing number of associate members, the Graphene Flagship was established following a call from the European Commission to address big science and technology challenges of the day through long-term, multidisciplinary R&D efforts.

A Feb.  24, 2015 University of Cambridge news release, which originated the news item, describes the roadmap in more detail,

In an open-access paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Nanoscale, more than 60 academics and industrialists lay out a science and technology roadmap for graphene, related two-dimensional crystals, other 2D materials, and hybrid systems based on a combination of different 2D crystals and other nanomaterials. The roadmap covers the next ten years and beyond, and its objective is to guide the research community and industry toward the development of products based on graphene and related materials.

The roadmap highlights three broad areas of activity. The first task is to identify new layered materials, assess their potential, and develop reliable, reproducible and safe means of producing them on an industrial scale. Identification of new device concepts enabled by 2D materials is also called for, along with the development of component technologies. The ultimate goal is to integrate components and structures based on 2D materials into systems capable of providing new functionalities and application areas.

Eleven science and technology themes are identified in the roadmap. These are: fundamental science, health and environment, production, electronic devices, spintronics, photonics and optoelectronics, sensors, flexible electronics, energy conversion and storage, composite materials, and biomedical devices. The roadmap addresses each of these areas in turn, with timelines.

Research areas outlined in the roadmap correspond broadly with current flagship work packages, with the addition of a work package devoted to the growing area of biomedical applications, to be included in the next phase of the flagship. A recent independent assessment has confirmed that the Graphene Flagship is firmly on course, with hundreds of research papers, numerous patents and marketable products to its name.

Roadmap timelines predict that, before the end of the ten-year period of the flagship, products will be close to market in the areas of flexible electronics, composites, and energy, as well as advanced prototypes of silicon-integrated photonic devices, sensors, high-speed electronics, and biomedical devices.

“This publication concludes a four-year effort to collect and coordinate state-of-the-art science and technology of graphene and related materials,” says Andrea Ferrari, director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre, and chairman of the Executive Board of the Graphene Flagship. “We hope that this open-access roadmap will serve as the starting point for academia and industry in their efforts to take layered materials and composites from laboratory to market.” Ferrari led the roadmap effort with Italian Institute of Technology physicist Francesco Bonaccorso, who is a Royal Society Newton Fellow of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Hughes Hall.

“We are very proud of the joint effort of the many authors who have produced this roadmap,” says Jari Kinaret, director of the Graphene Flagship. “The roadmap forms a solid foundation for the graphene community in Europe to plan its activities for the coming years. It is not a static document, but will evolve to reflect progress in the field, and new applications identified and pursued by industry.”

I have skimmed through the report briefly (wish I had more time) and have a couple of comments. First, there’s an excellent glossary of terms for anyone who might stumble over chemical abbreviations and/or more technical terminology. Second, they present a very interesting analysis of the intellectual property (patents) landscape (Note: Links have been removed. Incidental numbers are footnote references),

In the graphene area, there has been a particularly rapid increase in patent activity from around 2007.45 Much of this is driven by patent applications made by major corporations and universities in South Korea and USA.53 Additionally, a high level of graphene patent activity in China is also observed.54 These features have led some commentators to conclude that graphene innovations arising in Europe are being mainly exploited elsewhere.55 Nonetheless, an analysis of the Intellectual Property (IP) provides evidence that Europe already has a significant foothold in the graphene patent landscape and significant opportunities to secure future value. As the underlying graphene technology space develops, and the GRM [graphene and related materials] patent landscape matures, re-distribution of the patent landscape seems inevitable and Europe is well positioned to benefit from patent-based commercialisation of GRM research.

Overall, the graphene patent landscape is growing rapidly and already resembles that of sub-segments of the semiconductor and biotechnology industries,56 which experience high levels of patent activity. The patent strategies of the businesses active in such sub-sectors frequently include ‘portfolio maximization’56 and ‘portfolio optimization’56 strategies, and the sub-sectors experience the development of what commentators term ‘patent thickets’56, or multiple overlapping granted patent rights.56 A range of policies, regulatory and business strategies have been developed to limit such patent practices.57 In such circumstances, accurate patent landscaping may provide critical information to policy-makers, investors and individual industry participants, underpinning the development of sound policies, business strategies and research commercialisation plans.

It sounds like a patent thicket is developing (Note: Links have been removed. Incidental numbers are footnote references),,

Fig. 13 provides evidence of a relative increase in graphene patent filings in South Korea from 2007 to 2009 compared to 2004–2006. This could indicate increased commercial interest in graphene technology from around 2007. The period 2010 to 2012 shows a marked relative increase in graphene patent filings in China. It should be noted that a general increase in Chinese patent filings across many ST domains in this period is observed.76 Notwithstanding this general increase in Chinese patent activity, there does appear to be increased commercial interest in graphene in China. It is notable that the European Patent Office contribution as a percentage of all graphene patent filings globally falls from a 8% in the period 2007 to 2009 to 4% in the period 2010 to 2012.

The importance of the US, China and South Korea is emphasised by the top assignees, shown in Fig. 14. The corporation with most graphene patent applications is the Korean multinational Samsung, with over three times as many filings as its nearest rival. It has also patented an unrivalled range of graphene-technology applications, including synthesis procedures,77 transparent display devices,78 composite materials,79 transistors,80 batteries and solar cells.81 Samsung’s patent applications indicate a sustained and heavy investment in graphene R&D, as well as collaboration (co-assignment of patents) with a wide range of academic institutions.82,83


image file: c4nr01600a-f14.tif
Fig. 14 Top 10 graphene patent assignees by number and cumulative over all time as of end-July 2014. Number of patents are indicated in the red histograms referred to the left Y axis, while the cumulative percentage is the blue line, referred to the right Y axis.

It is also interesting to note that patent filings by universities and research institutions make up a significant proportion ([similar]50%) of total patent filings: the other half comprises contributions from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and multinationals.

Europe’s position is shown in Fig. 10, 12 and 14. While Europe makes a good showing in the geographical distribution of publications, it lags behind in patent applications, with only 7% of patent filings as compared to 30% in the US, 25% in China, and 13% in South Korea (Fig. 13) and only 9% of filings by academic institutions assigned in Europe (Fig. 15).


image file: c4nr01600a-f15.tif
Fig. 15 Geographical breakdown of academic patent holders as of July 2014.

While Europe is trailing other regions in terms of number of patent filings, it nevertheless has a significant foothold in the patent landscape. Currently, the top European patent holder is Finland’s Nokia, primarily around incorporation of graphene into electrical devices, including resonators and electrodes.72,84,85

This may sound like Europe is trailing behind but that’s not the case according to the roadmap (Note: Links have been removed. Incidental numbers are footnote references),

European Universities also show promise in the graphene patent landscape. We also find evidence of corporate-academic collaborations in Europe, including e.g. co-assignments filed with European research institutions and Germany’s AMO GmbH,86 and chemical giant BASF.87,88 Finally, Europe sees significant patent filings from a number of international corporate and university players including Samsung,77 Vorbeck Materials,89 Princeton University,90–92 and Rice University,93–95 perhaps reflecting the quality of the European ST base around graphene, and its importance as a market for graphene technologies.

There are a number of features in the graphene patent landscape which may lead to a risk of patent thickets96 or ‘multiple overlapping granted patents’ existing around aspects of graphene technology systems. [emphasis mine] There is a relatively high volume of patent activity around graphene, which is an early stage technology space, with applications in patent intensive industry sectors. Often patents claim carbon nano structures other than graphene in graphene patent landscapes, illustrating difficulties around defining ‘graphene’ and mapping the graphene patent landscape. Additionally, the graphene patent nomenclature is not entirely settled. Different patent examiners might grant patents over the same components which the different experts and industry players call by different names.

For anyone new to this blog, I am not a big fan of current patent regimes as they seem to be stifling rather encouraging innovation. Sadly, patents and copyright were originally developed to encourage creativity and innovation by allowing the creators to profit from their ideas. Over time a system designed to encourage innovation has devolved into one that does the opposite. (My Oct. 31, 2011 post titled Patents as weapons and obstacles, details my take on this matter.) I’m not arguing against patents and copyright but suggesting that the system be fixed or replaced with something that delivers on the original intention.

Getting back to the matter at hand, here’s a link to and a citation for the 200 pp. 2015 European Graphene roadmap,

Science and technology roadmap for graphene, related two-dimensional crystals, and hybrid systems by Andrea C. Ferrari, Francesco Bonaccorso, Vladimir Fal’ko, Konstantin S. Novoselov, Stephan Roche, Peter Bøggild, Stefano Borini, Frank H. L. Koppens, Vincenzo Palermo, Nicola Pugno, José A. Garrido, Roman Sordan, Alberto Bianco, Laura Ballerini, Maurizio Prato, Elefterios Lidorikis, Jani Kivioja, Claudio Marinelli, Tapani Ryhänen, Alberto Morpurgo, Jonathan N. Coleman, Valeria Nicolosi, Luigi Colombo, Albert Fert, Mar Garcia-Hernandez, Adrian Bachtold, Grégory F. Schneider, Francisco Guinea, Cees Dekker, Matteo Barbone, Zhipei Sun, Costas Galiotis,  Alexander N. Grigorenko, Gerasimos Konstantatos, Andras Kis, Mikhail Katsnelson, Lieven Vandersypen, Annick Loiseau, Vittorio Morandi, Daniel Neumaier, Emanuele Treossi, Vittorio Pellegrini, Marco Polini, Alessandro Tredicucci, Gareth M. Williams, Byung Hee Hong, Jong-Hyun Ahn, Jong Min Kim, Herbert Zirath, Bart J. van Wees, Herre van der Zant, Luigi Occhipinti, Andrea Di Matteo, Ian A. Kinloch, Thomas Seyller, Etienne Quesnel, Xinliang Feng,  Ken Teo, Nalin Rupesinghe, Pertti Hakonen, Simon R. T. Neil, Quentin Tannock, Tomas Löfwander and Jari Kinaret. Nanoscale, 2015, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C4NR01600A First published online 22 Sep 2014

Here’s a diagram illustrating the roadmap process,

Fig. 122 The STRs [science and technology roadmaps] follow a hierarchical structure where the strategic level in a) is connected to the more detailed roadmap shown in b). These general roadmaps are the condensed form of the topical roadmaps presented in the previous sections, and give technological targets for key applications to become commercially competitive and the forecasts for when the targets are predicted to be met.  Courtesy: Researchers and  the Royal Society's journal, Nanoscale

Fig. 122 The STRs [science and technology roadmaps] follow a hierarchical structure where the strategic level in a) is connected to the more detailed roadmap shown in b). These general roadmaps are the condensed form of the topical roadmaps presented in the previous sections, and give technological targets for key applications to become commercially competitive and the forecasts for when the targets are predicted to be met.
Courtesy: Researchers and the Royal Society’s journal, Nanoscale

The image here is not the best quality; the one embedded in the relevant Nanowerk news item is better.

As for the earlier roadmap, here’s my Oct. 11, 2012 post on the topic.

The yin and the yang of carbon nanotubes and toxicity


Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Researchers at the University College of London (UCL), France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and Italy’s University of Trieste have determined that carbon nanotube toxicity issues can be addressed be reducing their length and treating them chemically. From the Jan. 15,2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a new study, published January 15 [2013] in the journal Angewandte Chemie, evidence is provided that the asbestos-like reactivity and pathogenicity reported for long, pristine nanotubes can be completely alleviated if their surface is modified and their effective length is reduced as a result of chemical treatment.

First atomically described in the 1990s, carbon nanotubes are sheets of carbon atoms rolled up into hollow tubes just a few nanometres in diameter. Engineered carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified, with the addition of chemotherapeutic drugs, fluorescent tags or nucleic acids — opening up applications in cancer and gene therapy.

Furthermore, these chemically modified carbon nanotubes can pierce the cell membrane, acting as a kind of ‘nano-needle’, allowing the possibility of efficient transport of therapeutic and diagnostic agents directly into the cytoplasm of cells.

Among their downsides however, have been concerns about their safety profile. One of the most serious concerns, highlighted in 2008, involves the carcinogenic risk from the exposure and persistence of such fibres in the body. Some studies indicate that when long untreated carbon nanotubes are injected to the abdominal cavity of mice they can induce unwanted responses resembling those associated with exposure to certain asbestos fibres.

In this paper, the authors describe two different reactions which ask if any chemical modification can render the nanotubes non-toxic. They conclude that not all chemical treatments alleviate the toxicity risks associated with the material. Only those reactions that are able to render carbon nanotubes short and stably suspended in biological fluids without aggregation are able to result in safe, risk-free material.

Here’s a citation and link for this latest  research, from the ScienceDaily news item where you can also read the lead researcher’s comments about carbon nanotubes, safety, and unreasonable proposals to halt production,

Hanene Ali-Boucetta, Antonio Nunes, Raquel Sainz, M. Antonia Herrero, Bowen Tian, Maurizio Prato, Alberto Bianco, Kostas Kostarelos. Asbestos-like Pathogenicity of Long Carbon Nanotubes Alleviated by Chemical Functionalization. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201207664

The article is behind a paywall. I have mentioned long carbon nanotubes and their resemblance to asbestos fibres in several posts. The  Oct. 26, 2009 posting [scroll down about 1/3 of the way] highlights research which took place after the study where mice had carbon nanotubes injected into their bellies; in this second piece of research they inhaled the nanotubes.

ETA Jan. 21, 2013: Dexter Johnson gives context and commentary about this latest research into long multiwalled nanotubes (MWNTs) which he sums up as the answer to this question “What if you kept the MWNTs short?”  in a Jan. 18, 2013 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website)

Carbon nanotubes, neurons, and spinal cords (plus a brief plug for the Isabelle Stengers talk being livestreamed today)

Mention scaffolds, nanotechnology, and cells and I think of tissue engineering. Michael Berger’s March 2, 2012 Spotlight essay, Exploring the complexity of nanomaterial-neural interfaces, on Nanowerk mentions all three. From the essay,

Carbon nanotubes, like the nervous cells of our brain, are excellent electrical signal conductors and can form intimate mechanical contacts with cellular membranes, thereby establishing a functional link to neuronal structures. …

Now, researchers have, for the first time, explored the impact of carbon nanotube scaffolds on multilayered neuronal networks. Up to now, all known effects of carbon nanotubes on neurons – namely their reported ability to potentiate neuronal signaling and synapses – have been described in bi-dimensional cultured networks where nanotube/neuron hybrids were developed on a monolayer of dissociated brain cells.

In their work, a team of scientists in Italy, led by professors Maurizio Prato and Laura Ballerini, used slices from the spinal cords of mice to model multilayer-tissue complexity. They interfaced these spinal segments to multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWCNT) scaffolds for weeks at a time to see whether and how the interactions at the monolayer level are translated to multilayered nerve tissues.

I found this part of the explanation a little easier to understand,

According to the team, interfacing spinal cord explants [cells removed from living tissue and cultivated in artificial media] to purified carbon nanotubes over a longer period (weeks) induces two major effects: First, the number and length of neuronal fibers outgrowing the spinal segment increases, associated with changes in growth cone activity and in fiber elastomechanical properties. And, secondly, the researchers point out that after weeks of MWCNT  interfacing, neurons located at as far as five cell layers from the substrate display an increased efficacy in synaptic responses – which could represent either an improvement or a pathological behavior – presumably mediated by ongoing plasticity driven by the neuron/MWCNT hybrids.

If this increased efficacy in synaptic responses should represent an improvement, it suggests to me that it could be helpful with spinal cord injuries at some point. The researchers themselves are not speculating that far into the future (from the Berger essay),

They [Prato and Ballerini] note that this is important because it exploits the design of artificial micro- and nanoscale devices that cooperate with neuronal network activity, thereby creating hybrid structures able to cross the barriers between artificial devices and neurons.

Taken in conjunction with today’s (March 5, 2012) earlier posting (Carbon and neural implants), it seems that there is a great deal of work being done to integrate ‘machine’ and flesh so we achieve machine/flesh. While I don’t believe that philosopher and chemist Isabelle Stengers will be addressing those specific issues in her  talk, Cosmopolitics, being livestreamed here later today (3:30 pm PST) from Halifax (Nova Scotia), she does touch on this,

Professor Stengers’ keynote address will examine sciences and the consequences of what has been called progress. Is it possible to reclaim modern practices, to have them actively taking into account what they felt entitled to ignore in the name of progress? Or else, can they learn to “think with” instead of define and judge?  [emphasis mine]

I don’t know what she means by ‘think with’ but it strikes me that it represents a significant shift of thought as it implies a relationship that is not separated (or bounded) in the ways we have traditionally observed. Defining and judging are made possible by the notion of separation (boundaries); machine and flesh have been viewed from the perspective of boundaries and separation; machine/flesh seems more like ‘thinking with’.