Tag Archives: MIT

CRISPR patent decision: Harvard’s and MIT’s Broad Institute victorious—for now

I have written about the CRISPR patent tussle (Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley) previously in a Jan. 6, 2015 posting and in a more detailed May 14, 2015 posting. I also mentioned (in a Jan. 17, 2017 posting) CRISPR and its patent issues in the context of a posting about a Slate.com series on Frankenstein and the novel’s applicability to our own time. This patent fight is being bitterly fought as fortunes are at stake.

It seems a decision has been made regarding the CRISPR patent claims. From a Feb. 17, 2017 article by Charmaine Distor for The Science Times,

After an intense court battle, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released its ruling on February 15 [2017]. The rights for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology was handed over to the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

According to an article in Nature, the said court battle was between the Broad Institute and the University of California. The two institutions are fighting over the intellectual property right for the CRISPR patent. The case between the two started when the patent was first awarded to the Broad Institute despite having the University of California apply first for the CRISPR patent.

Heidi Ledford’s Feb. 17, 2017 article for Nature provides more insight into the situation (Note: Links have been removed),

It [USPTO] ruled that the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge could keep its patents on using CRISPR–Cas9 in eukaryotic cells. That was a blow to the University of California in Berkeley, which had filed its own patents and had hoped to have the Broad’s thrown out.

The fight goes back to 2012, when Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley, Emmanuelle Charpentier, then at the University of Vienna, and their colleagues outlined how CRISPR–Cas9 could be used to precisely cut isolated DNA1. In 2013, Feng Zhang at the Broad and his colleagues — and other teams — showed2 how it could be adapted to edit DNA in eukaryotic cells such as plants, livestock and humans.

Berkeley filed for a patent earlier, but the USPTO granted the Broad’s patents first — and this week upheld them. There are high stakes involved in the ruling. The holder of key patents could make millions of dollars from CRISPR–Cas9’s applications in industry: already, the technique has sped up genetic research, and scientists are using it to develop disease-resistant livestock and treatments for human diseases.

But the fight for patent rights to CRISPR technology is by no means over. Here are four reasons why.

1. Berkeley can appeal the ruling

2. European patents are still up for grabs

3. Other parties are also claiming patent rights on CRISPR–Cas9

4. CRISPR technology is moving beyond what the patents cover

As for Ledford’s 3rd point, there are an estimated 763 patent families (groups of related patents) claiming CAS9 leading to the distinct possibility that the Broad Institute will be fighting many patent claims in the future.

Once you’ve read Distor’s and Ledford’s articles, you may want to check out Adam Rogers’ and Eric Niiler’s Feb. 16, 2017 CRISPR patent article for Wired,

The fight over who owns the most promising technique for editing genes—cutting and pasting the stuff of life to cure disease and advance scientific knowledge—has been a rough one. A team on the West Coast, at UC Berkeley, filed patents on the method, Crispr-Cas9; a team on the East Coast, based at MIT and the Broad Institute, filed their own patents in 2014 after Berkeley’s, but got them granted first. The Berkeley group contended that this constituted “interference,” and that Berkeley deserved the patent.

At stake: millions, maybe billions of dollars in biotech money and licensing fees, the future of medicine, the future of bioscience. Not nothing. Who will benefit depends on who owns the patents.

On Wednesday [Feb. 15, 2017], the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board kind of, sort of, almost began to answer that question. Berkeley will get the patent for using the system called Crispr-Cas9 in any living cell, from bacteria to blue whales. Broad/MIT gets the patent in eukaryotic cells, which is to say, plants and animals.

It’s … confusing. “The patent that the Broad received is for the use of Crispr gene-editing technology in eukaryotic cells. The patent for the University of California is for all cells,” says Jennifer Doudna, the UC geneticist and co-founder of Caribou Biosciences who co-invented Crispr, on a conference call. Her metaphor: “They have a patent on green tennis balls; we have a patent for all tennis balls.”

Observers didn’t quite buy that topspin. If Caribou is playing tennis, it’s looking like Broad/MIT is Serena Williams.

“UC does not necessarily lose everything, but they’re no doubt spinning the story,” says Robert Cook-Deegan, an expert in genetic policy at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “UC’s claims to eukaryotic uses of Crispr-Cas9 will not be granted in the form they sought. That’s a big deal, and UC was the big loser.”

UC officials said Wednesday [Feb. 15, 2017] that they are studying the 51-page decision and considering whether to appeal. That leaves members of the biotechnology sector wondering who they will have to pay to use Crispr as part of a business—and scientists hoping the outcome won’t somehow keep them from continuing their research.


Happy reading!

Semi-living gloves as sensors

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are calling it a new ‘living material’ according to a Feb. 16, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Engineers and biologists at MIT have teamed up to design a new “living material” — a tough, stretchy, biocompatible sheet of hydrogel injected with live cells that are genetically programmed to light up in the presence of certain chemicals.

Researchers have found that the hydrogel’s mostly watery environment helps keep nutrients and programmed bacteria alive and active. When the bacteria reacts to a certain chemical, the bacteria are programmed to light up, as seen on the left. Courtesy of the researchers

A Feb. 15, 2017 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about this work,

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers demonstrate the new material’s potential for sensing chemicals, both in the environment and in the human body.

The team fabricated various wearable sensors from the cell-infused hydrogel, including a rubber glove with fingertips that glow after touching a chemically contaminated surface, and bandages that light up when pressed against chemicals on a person’s skin.

Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says the group’s living material design may be adapted to sense other chemicals and contaminants, for uses ranging from crime scene investigation and forensic science, to pollution monitoring and medical diagnostics.

“With this design, people can put different types of bacteria in these devices to indicate toxins in the environment, or disease on the skin,” says Timothy Lu, associate professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science. “We’re demonstrating the potential for living materials and devices.”

The paper’s co-authors are graduate students Xinyue Liu, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eleonore Tham, Hyunwoo Yuk, and Shaoting Lin.

Infusing life in materials

Lu and his colleagues in MIT’s Synthetic Biology Group specialize in creating biological circuits, genetically reprogramming the biological parts in living cells such as E. coli to work together in sequence, much like logic steps in an electrical circuit. In this way, scientists can reengineer living cells to carry out specific functions, including the ability to sense and signal the presence of viruses and toxins.

However, many of these newly programmed cells have only been demonstrated in situ, within Petri dishes, where scientists can carefully control the nutrient levels necessary to keep the cells alive and active — an environment that has proven extremely difficult to replicate in synthetic materials.

“The challenge to making living materials is how to maintain those living cells, to make them viable and functional in the device,” Lu says. “They require humidity, nutrients, and some require oxygen. The second challenge is how to prevent them from escaping from the material.”

To get around these roadblocks, others have used freeze-dried chemical extracts from genetically engineered cells, incorporating them into paper to create low-cost, virus-detecting diagnostic strips. But extracts, Lu says, are not the same as living cells, which can maintain their functionality over a longer period of time and may have higher sensitivity for detecting pathogens.

Other groups have seeded heart muscle cells onto thin rubber films to make soft, “living” actuators, or robots. When bent repeatedly, however, these films can crack, allowing the live cells to leak out.

A lively host

Zhao’s group in MIT’s Soft Active Materials Laboratory has developed a material that may be ideal for hosting living cells. For the past few years, his team has come up with various formulations of hydrogel — a tough, highly stretchable, biocompatible material made from a mix of polymer and water. Their latest designs have contained up to 95 percent water, providing an environment which Zhao and Lu recognized might be suitable for sustaining living cells. The material also resists cracking even when repeatedly stretched and pulled — a property that could help contain cells within the material.

The two groups teamed up to integrate Lu’s genetically programmed bacterial cells into Zhao’s sheets of hydrogel material. They first fabricated layers of hydrogel and patterned narrow channels within the layers using 3-D printing and micromolding techniques. They fused the hydrogel to a layer of elastomer, or rubber, that is porous enough to let in oxygen. They then injected E. coli cells into the hydrogel’s channels. The cells were programmed to fluoresce, or light up, when in contact with certain chemicals that pass through the hydrogel, in this case a natural compound known as DAPG (2,4-diacetylphloroglucinol).

The researchers then soaked the hydrogel/elastomer material in a bath of nutrients which infused throughout the hydrogel and helped to keep the bacterial cells alive and active for several days.

To demonstrate the material’s potential uses, the researchers first fabricated a sheet of the material with four separate, narrow channels, each containing a type of bacteria engineered to glow green in response to a different chemical compound. They found each channel reliably lit up when exposed to its respective chemical.

Next, the team fashioned the material into a bandage, or “living patch,” patterned with channels containing bacteria sensitive to rhamnose, a naturally occurring sugar. The researchers swabbed a volunteer’s wrist with a cotton ball soaked in rhamnose, then applied the hydrogel patch, which instantly lit up in response to the chemical.

Finally, the researchers fabricated a hydrogel/elastomer glove whose fingertips contained swirl-like channels, each of which they filled with different chemical-sensing bacterial cells. Each fingertip glowed in response to picking up a cotton ball soaked with a respective compound.

The group has also developed a theoretical model to help guide others in designing similar living materials and devices.

“The model helps us to design living devices more efficiently,” Zhao says. “It tells you things like the thickness of the hydrogel layer you should use, the distance between channels, how to pattern the channels, and how much bacteria to use.”

Ultimately, Zhao envisions products made from living materials, such as gloves and rubber soles lined with chemical-sensing hydrogel, or bandages, patches, and even clothing that may detect signs of infection or disease.

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

Stretchable living materials and devices with hydrogel–elastomer hybrids hosting programmed cells by Xinyue Liu, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eléonore Tham, Hyunwoo Yuk, Shaoting Lin, Timothy K. Lu, and Xuanhe Zhao. PNAS February 15, 2017 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1618307114 Published online before print February 15, 2017

This paper appears to be open access.

New iron oxide nanoparticle as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) contrast agent

This high-resolution transmission electron micrograph of particles made by the research team shows the particles’ highly uniform size and shape. These are iron oxide particles just 3 nanometers across, coated with a zwitterion layer. Their small size means they can easily be cleared through the kidneys after injection. Courtesy of the researchers

A Feb. 14, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announces a new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) contrast agent,

A new, specially coated iron oxide nanoparticle developed by a team at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and elsewhere could provide an alternative to conventional gadolinium-based contrast agents used for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedures. In rare cases, the currently used gadolinium agents have been found to produce adverse effects in patients with impaired kidney function.

A Feb. 14, 2017 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,


The advent of MRI technology, which is used to observe details of specific organs or blood vessels, has been an enormous boon to medical diagnostics over the last few decades. About a third of the 60 million MRI procedures done annually worldwide use contrast-enhancing agents, mostly containing the element gadolinium. While these contrast agents have mostly proven safe over many years of use, some rare but significant side effects have shown up in a very small subset of patients. There may soon be a safer substitute thanks to this new research.

In place of gadolinium-based contrast agents, the researchers have found that they can produce similar MRI contrast with tiny nanoparticles of iron oxide that have been treated with a zwitterion coating. (Zwitterions are molecules that have areas of both positive and negative electrical charges, which cancel out to make them neutral overall.) The findings are being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper by Moungi Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry at MIT; He Wei, an MIT postdoc; Oliver Bruns, an MIT research scientist; Michael Kaul at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany; and 15 others.

Contrast agents, injected into the patient during an MRI procedure and designed to be quickly cleared from the body by the kidneys afterwards, are needed to make fine details of organ structures, blood vessels, and other specific tissues clearly visible in the images. Some agents produce dark areas in the resulting image, while others produce light areas. The primary agents for producing light areas contain gadolinium.

Iron oxide particles have been largely used as negative (dark) contrast agents, but radiologists vastly prefer positive (light) contrast agents such as gadolinium-based agents, as negative contrast can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from certain imaging artifacts and internal bleeding. But while the gadolinium-based agents have become the standard, evidence shows that in some very rare cases they can lead to an untreatable condition called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, which can be fatal. In addition, evidence now shows that the gadolinium can build up in the brain, and although no effects of this buildup have yet been demonstrated, the FDA is investigating it for potential harm.

“Over the last decade, more and more side effects have come to light” from the gadolinium agents, Bruns says, so that led the research team to search for alternatives. “None of these issues exist for iron oxide,” at least none that have yet been detected, he says.

The key new finding by this team was to combine two existing techniques: making very tiny particles of iron oxide, and attaching certain molecules (called surface ligands) to the outsides of these particles to optimize their characteristics. The iron oxide inorganic core is small enough to produce a pronounced positive contrast in MRI, and the zwitterionic surface ligand, which was recently developed by Wei and coworkers in the Bawendi research group, makes the iron oxide particles water-soluble, compact, and biocompatible.

The combination of a very tiny iron oxide core and an ultrathin ligand shell leads to a total hydrodynamic diameter of 4.7 nanometers, below the 5.5-nanometer renal clearance threshold. This means that the coated iron oxide should quickly clear through the kidneys and not accumulate. This renal clearance property is an important feature where the particles perform comparably to gadolinium-based contrast agents.

Now that initial tests have demonstrated the particles’ effectiveness as contrast agents, Wei and Bruns say the next step will be to do further toxicology testing to show the particles’ safety, and to continue to improve the characteristics of the material. “It’s not perfect. We have more work to do,” Bruns says. But because iron oxide has been used for so long and in so many ways, even as an iron supplement, any negative effects could likely be treated by well-established protocols, the researchers say. If all goes well, the team is considering setting up a startup company to bring the material to production.

For some patients who are currently excluded from getting MRIs because of potential side effects of gadolinium, the new agents “could allow those patients to be eligible again” for the procedure, Bruns says. And, if it does turn out that the accumulation of gadolinium in the brain has negative effects, an overall phase-out of gadolinium for such uses could be needed. “If that turned out to be the case, this could potentially be a complete replacement,” he says.

Ralph Weissleder, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who was not involved in this work, says, “The work is of high interest, given the limitations of gadolinium-based contrast agents, which typically have short vascular half-lives and may be contraindicated in renally compromised patients.”

The research team included researchers in MIT’s chemistry, biological engineering, nuclear science and engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and materials science and engineering departments and its program in Health Sciences and Technology; and at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf; Brown University; and the Massachusetts General Hospital. It was supported by the MIT-Harvard NIH Center for Cancer Nanotechnology, the Army Research Office through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the NIH-funded Laser Biomedical Research Center, the MIT Deshpande Center, and the European Union Seventh Framework Program.

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

Exceedingly small iron oxide nanoparticles as positive MRI contrast agents by He Wei, Oliver T. Bruns, Michael G. Kaul, Eric C. Hansen, Mariya Barch, Agata Wiśniowsk, Ou Chen, Yue Chen, Nan Li, Satoshi Okada, Jose M. Cordero, Markus Heine, Christian T. Farrar, Daniel M. Montana, Gerhard Adam, Harald Ittrich, Alan Jasanoff, Peter Nielsen, and Moungi G. Bawendi. PNAS February 13, 2017 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1620145114 Published online before print February 13, 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

R.I.P. Mildred Dresselhaus, Queen of Carbon

I’ve been hearing about Mildred Dresselhaus, professor emerita (retired professor) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), just about as long as I’ve been researching and writing about nanotechnology (about 10 years including the work for my master’s project with the almost eight years on this blog).

She died on Monday, Feb. 20, 2017 at the age of 86 having broken through barriers for those of her gender, barriers for her subject area, and barriers for her age.

Mark Anderson in his Feb. 22, 2017 obituary for the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum website provides a brief overview of her extraordinary life and accomplishments,

Called the “Queen of Carbon Science,” Dresselhaus pioneered the study of carbon nanostructures at a time when studying physical and material properties of commonplace atoms like carbon was out of favor. Her visionary perspectives on the sixth atom in the periodic table—including exploring individual layers of carbon atoms (precursors to graphene), developing carbon fibers stronger than steel, and revealing new carbon structures that were ultimately developed into buckyballs and nanotubes—invigorated the field.

“Millie Dresselhaus began life as the child of poor Polish immigrants in the Bronx; by the end, she was Institute Professor Emerita, the highest distinction awarded by the MIT faculty. A physicist, materials scientist, and electrical engineer, she was known as the ‘Queen of Carbon’ because her work paved the way for much of today’s carbon-based nanotechnology,” MIT president Rafael Reif said in a prepared statement.

Friends and colleagues describe Dresselhaus as a gifted instructor as well as a tireless and inspired researcher. And her boundless generosity toward colleagues, students, and girls and women pursuing careers in science is legendary.

In 1963, Dresselhaus began her own career studying carbon by publishing a paper on graphite in the IBM Journal for Research and Development, a foundational work in the history of nanotechnology. To this day, her studies of the electronic structure of this material serve as a reference point for explorations of the electronic structure of fullerenes and carbon nanotubes. Coauthor, with her husband Gene Dresselhaus, of a leading book on carbon fibers, she began studying the laser vaporation of carbon and the “carbon clusters” that resulted. Researchers who followed her lead discovered a 60-carbon structure that was soon identified as the icosahedral “soccer ball” molecular configuration known as buckminsterfullerene, or buckyball. In 1991, Dresselhaus further suggested that fullerene could be elongated as a tube, and she outlined these imagined objects’ symmetries. Not long after, researchers announced the discovery of carbon nanotubes.

When she began her nearly half-century career at MIT, as a visiting professor, women consisted of just 4 percent of the undergraduate student population.  So Dresselhaus began working toward the improvement of living conditions for women students at the university. Through her leadership, MIT adopted an equal and joint admission process for women and men. (Previously, MIT had propounded the self-fulfilling prophecy of harboring more stringent requirements for women based on less dormitory space and perceived poorer performance.) And so promoting women in STEM—before it was ever called STEM—became one of her passions. Serving as president of the American Physical Society, she spearheaded and launched initiatives like the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and the society’s more informal committees of visiting women physicists on campuses around the United States, which have increased the female faculty and student populations on the campuses they visit.

If you have the time, please read Anderson’s piece in its entirety.

One fact that has impressed me greatly is that Dresselhaus kept working into her eighties. I featured a paper she published in an April 27, 2012 posting at the age of 82 and she was described in the MIT write up at the time as a professor, not a professor emerita. I later featured Dresselhaus in a May 31, 2012 posting when she was awarded the Kavli Prize for Nanoscience.

It seems she worked almost to the end. Recently, GE (General Electric) posted a video “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?” starring Mildred Dresselhaus,

H/t Mark Anderson’s obituary Feb. 22, 2017 piece. The video was posted on Feb. 8, 2017.

Goodbye to the Queen of Carbon!

Fusing graphene flakes for 3D graphene structures that are 10x as strong as steel

A Jan. 6, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes how geometry may have as much or more to do with the strength of 3D graphene structures than the graphene used to create them,

A team of researchers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] has designed one of the strongest lightweight materials known, by compressing and fusing flakes of graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon. The new material, a sponge-like configuration with a density of just 5 percent, can have a strength 10 times that of steel.

In its two-dimensional form, graphene is thought to be the strongest of all known materials. But researchers until now have had a hard time translating that two-dimensional strength into useful three-dimensional materials.

The new findings show that the crucial aspect of the new 3-D forms has more to do with their unusual geometrical configuration than with the material itself, which suggests that similar strong, lightweight materials could be made from a variety of materials by creating similar geometric features.

The findings are being reported today [Jan. 6, 2017\ in the journal Science Advances, in a paper by Markus Buehler, the head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the McAfee Professor of Engineering; Zhao Qin, a CEE research scientist; Gang Seob Jung, a graduate student; and Min Jeong Kang MEng ’16, a recent graduate.

A Jan. 6, 2017 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Other groups had suggested the possibility of such lightweight structures, but lab experiments so far had failed to match predictions, with some results exhibiting several orders of magnitude less strength than expected. The MIT team decided to solve the mystery by analyzing the material’s behavior down to the level of individual atoms within the structure. They were able to produce a mathematical framework that very closely matches experimental observations.

Two-dimensional materials — basically flat sheets that are just one atom in thickness but can be indefinitely large in the other dimensions — have exceptional strength as well as unique electrical properties. But because of their extraordinary thinness, “they are not very useful for making 3-D materials that could be used in vehicles, buildings, or devices,” Buehler says. “What we’ve done is to realize the wish of translating these 2-D materials into three-dimensional structures.”

The team was able to compress small flakes of graphene using a combination of heat and pressure. This process produced a strong, stable structure whose form resembles that of some corals and microscopic creatures called diatoms. These shapes, which have an enormous surface area in proportion to their volume, proved to be remarkably strong. “Once we created these 3-D structures, we wanted to see what’s the limit — what’s the strongest possible material we can produce,” says Qin. To do that, they created a variety of 3-D models and then subjected them to various tests. In computational simulations, which mimic the loading conditions in the tensile and compression tests performed in a tensile loading machine, “one of our samples has 5 percent the density of steel, but 10 times the strength,” Qin says.

Buehler says that what happens to their 3-D graphene material, which is composed of curved surfaces under deformation, resembles what would happen with sheets of paper. Paper has little strength along its length and width, and can be easily crumpled up. But when made into certain shapes, for example rolled into a tube, suddenly the strength along the length of the tube is much greater and can support substantial weight. Similarly, the geometric arrangement of the graphene flakes after treatment naturally forms a very strong configuration.

The new configurations have been made in the lab using a high-resolution, multimaterial 3-D printer. They were mechanically tested for their tensile and compressive properties, and their mechanical response under loading was simulated using the team’s theoretical models. The results from the experiments and simulations matched accurately.

The new, more accurate results, based on atomistic computational modeling by the MIT team, ruled out a possibility proposed previously by other teams: that it might be possible to make 3-D graphene structures so lightweight that they would actually be lighter than air, and could be used as a durable replacement for helium in balloons. The current work shows, however, that at such low densities, the material would not have sufficient strength and would collapse from the surrounding air pressure.

But many other possible applications of the material could eventually be feasible, the researchers say, for uses that require a combination of extreme strength and light weight. “You could either use the real graphene material or use the geometry we discovered with other materials, like polymers or metals,” Buehler says, to gain similar advantages of strength combined with advantages in cost, processing methods, or other material properties (such as transparency or electrical conductivity).

“You can replace the material itself with anything,” Buehler says. “The geometry is the dominant factor. It’s something that has the potential to transfer to many things.”

The unusual geometric shapes that graphene naturally forms under heat and pressure look something like a Nerf ball — round, but full of holes. These shapes, known as gyroids, are so complex that “actually making them using conventional manufacturing methods is probably impossible,” Buehler says. The team used 3-D-printed models of the structure, enlarged to thousands of times their natural size, for testing purposes.

For actual synthesis, the researchers say, one possibility is to use the polymer or metal particles as templates, coat them with graphene by chemical vapor deposit before heat and pressure treatments, and then chemically or physically remove the polymer or metal phases to leave 3-D graphene in the gyroid form. For this, the computational model given in the current study provides a guideline to evaluate the mechanical quality of the synthesis output.

The same geometry could even be applied to large-scale structural materials, they suggest. For example, concrete for a structure such a bridge might be made with this porous geometry, providing comparable strength with a fraction of the weight. This approach would have the additional benefit of providing good insulation because of the large amount of enclosed airspace within it.

Because the shape is riddled with very tiny pore spaces, the material might also find application in some filtration systems, for either water or chemical processing. The mathematical descriptions derived by this group could facilitate the development of a variety of applications, the researchers say.

“This is an inspiring study on the mechanics of 3-D graphene assembly,” says Huajian Gao, a professor of engineering at Brown University, who was not involved in this work. “The combination of computational modeling with 3-D-printing-based experiments used in this paper is a powerful new approach in engineering research. It is impressive to see the scaling laws initially derived from nanoscale simulations resurface in macroscale experiments under the help of 3-D printing,” he says.

This work, Gao says, “shows a promising direction of bringing the strength of 2-D materials and the power of material architecture design together.”

There’s a video describing the work,

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

The mechanics and design of a lightweight three-dimensional graphene assembly by Zhao Qin, Gang Seob Jung, Min Jeong Kang, and Markus J. Buehler. Science Advances  06 Jan 2017: Vol. 3, no. 1, e1601536 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601536  04 January 2017

This paper appears to be open access.

Water that freezes solid at over 100 degrees Celsius

The ‘magical property’ of water that freezes at temperatures higher than 100 degrees Celsius occurs at the nanoscale according to this Nov. 28, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

It’s a well-known fact that water, at sea level, starts to boil at a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit, or 100 degrees Celsius. And scientists have long observed that when water is confined in very small spaces, its boiling and freezing points can change a bit, usually dropping by around 10 C or so.

But now, a team at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] has found a completely unexpected set of changes: Inside the tiniest of spaces — in carbon nanotubes whose inner dimensions are not much bigger than a few water molecules — water can freeze solid even at high temperatures that would normally set it boiling.

A Nov. 28, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The discovery illustrates how even very familiar materials can drastically change their behavior when trapped inside structures measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. And the finding might lead to new applications — such as, essentially, ice-filled wires — that take advantage of the unique electrical and thermal properties of ice while remaining stable at room temperature.

“If you confine a fluid to a nanocavity, you can actually distort its phase behavior,” Strano says, referring to how and when the substance changes between solid, liquid, and gas phases. Such effects were expected, but the enormous magnitude of the change, and its direction (raising rather than lowering the freezing point), were a complete surprise: In one of the team’s tests, the water solidified at a temperature of 105 C or more. (The exact temperature is hard to determine, but 105 C was considered the minimum value in this test; the actual temperature could have been as high as 151 C.)

“The effect is much greater than anyone had anticipated,” Strano says.

It turns out that the way water’s behavior changes inside the tiny carbon nanotubes — structures the shape of a soda straw, made entirely of carbon atoms but only a few nanometers in diameter — depends crucially on the exact diameter of the tubes. “These are really the smallest pipes you could think of,” Strano says. In the experiments, the nanotubes were left open at both ends, with reservoirs of water at each opening.

Even the difference between nanotubes 1.05 nanometers and 1.06 nanometers across made a difference of tens of degrees in the apparent freezing point, the researchers found. Such extreme differences were completely unexpected. “All bets are off when you get really small,” Strano says. “It’s really an unexplored space.”

In earlier efforts to understand how water and other fluids would behave when confined to such small spaces, “there were some simulations that showed really contradictory results,” he says. Part of the reason for that is many teams weren’t able to measure the exact sizes of their carbon nanotubes so precisely, not realizing that such small differences could produce such different outcomes.

In fact, it’s surprising that water even enters into these tiny tubes in the first place, Strano says: Carbon nanotubes are thought to be hydrophobic, or water-repelling, so water molecules should have a hard time getting inside. The fact that they do gain entry remains a bit of a mystery, he says.

Strano and his team used highly sensitive imaging systems, using a technique called vibrational spectroscopy, that could track the movement of water inside the nanotubes, thus making its behavior subject to detailed measurement for the first time.

The team can detect not only the presence of water in the tube, but also its phase, he says: “We can tell if it’s vapor or liquid, and we can tell if it’s in a stiff phase.” While the water definitely goes into a solid phase, the team avoids calling it “ice” because that term implies a certain kind of crystalline structure, which they haven’t yet been able to show conclusively exists in these confined spaces. “It’s not necessarily ice, but it’s an ice-like phase,” Strano says.

Because this solid water doesn’t melt until well above the normal boiling point of water, it should remain perfectly stable indefinitely under room-temperature conditions. That makes it potentially a useful material for a variety of possible applications, he says. For example, it should be possible to make “ice wires” that would be among the best carriers known for protons, because water conducts protons at least 10 times more readily than typical conductive materials. “This gives us very stable water wires, at room temperature,” he says.

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

Observation of extreme phase transition temperatures of water confined inside isolated carbon nanotubes by Kumar Varoon Agrawal, Steven Shimizu, Lee W. Drahushuk, Daniel Kilcoyne, & Michael S. Strano. Nature Nanotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.254 Published online 28 November 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Montreal Neuro creates a new paradigm for technology transfer?

It’s one heck of a Christmas present. Canadian businessmen Larry Tannenbaum and his wife Judy have given the Montreal Neurological Institute (Montreal Neuro), which is affiliated with McGill University, a $20M donation. From a Dec. 16, 2016 McGill University news release,

The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was present today at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (MNI) for the announcement of an important donation of $20 million by the Larry and Judy Tanenbaum family. This transformative gift will help to establish the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute, a bold initiative that will facilitate the sharing of neuroscience findings worldwide to accelerate the discovery of leading edge therapeutics to treat patients suffering from neurological diseases.

‟Today, we take an important step forward in opening up new horizons in neuroscience research and discovery,” said Mr. Larry Tanenbaum. ‟Our digital world provides for unprecedented opportunities to leverage advances in technology to the benefit of science.  That is what we are celebrating here today: the transformation of research, the removal of barriers, the breaking of silos and, most of all, the courage of researchers to put patients and progress ahead of all other considerations.”

Neuroscience has reached a new frontier, and advances in technology now allow scientists to better understand the brain and all its complexities in ways that were previously deemed impossible. The sharing of research findings amongst scientists is critical, not only due to the sheer scale of data involved, but also because diseases of the brain and the nervous system are amongst the most compelling unmet medical needs of our time.

Neurological diseases, mental illnesses, addictions, and brain and spinal cord injuries directly impact 1 in 3 Canadians, representing approximately 11 million people across the country.

“As internationally-recognized leaders in the field of brain research, we are uniquely placed to deliver on this ambitious initiative and reinforce our reputation as an institution that drives innovation, discovery and advanced patient care,” said Dr. Guy Rouleau, Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and Chair of McGill University’s Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery. “Part of the Tanenbaum family’s donation will be used to incentivize other Canadian researchers and institutions to adopt an Open Science model, thus strengthening the network of like-minded institutes working in this field.”

What they don’t mention in the news release is that they will not be pursuing any patents (for five years according to one of the people in the video but I can’t find text to substantiate that time limit*; there are no time limits noted elsewhere) on their work. For this detail and others, you have to listen to the video they’ve created,

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online Dec. 16, 2016 posting (with files from Sarah Leavitt and Justin Hayward) adds a few personal details about Tannenbaum,

“Our goal is simple: to accelerate brain research and discovery to relieve suffering,” said Tanenbaum.

Tanenbaum, a Canadian businessman and chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, said many of his loved ones suffered from neurological disorders.

“I lost my mother to Alzheimer’s, my father to a stroke, three dear friends to brain cancer, and a brilliant friend and scientist to clinical depression,” said Tanenbaum.

He hopes the institute will serve as the template for science research across the world, a thought that Trudeau echoed.

“This vision around open science, recognizing the role that Canada can and should play, the leadership that Canadians can have in this initiative is truly, truly exciting,” said Trudeau.

The Neurological Institute says the pharmaceutical industry is supportive of the open science concept because it will provide crucial base research that can later be used to develop drugs to fight an array of neurological conditions.

Jack Stilgoe in a Dec. 16, 2016 posting on the Guardian blogs explains what this donation could mean (Note: Links have been removed),

With the help of Tanenbaum’s gift of 20 million Canadian dollars (£12million) the ‘Neuro’, the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, is setting up an experiment in experimentation, an Open Science Initiative with the express purpose of finding out the best way to realise the potential of scientific research.

Governments in science-rich countries are increasingly concerned that they do not appear to reaping the economic returns they feel they deserve from investments in scientific research. Their favoured response has been to try to bridge what they see as a ‘valley of death’ between basic scientific research and industrial applications. This has meant more funding for ‘translational research’ and the flowering of technology transfer offices within universities.

… There are some success stories, particularly in the life sciences. Patents from the work of Richard Axel at Columbia University at one point brought the university almost $100 million per year. The University of Florida received more than $150 million for inventing Gatorade in the 1960s. The stakes are high in the current battle between Berkely and MIT/Harvard over who owns the rights to the CRISPR/Cas9 system that has revolutionised genetic engineering and could be worth billions.

Policymakers imagine a world in which universities pay for themselves just as a pharmaceutical research lab does. However, for critics of technology transfer, such stories blind us to the reality of university’s entrepreneurial abilities.

For most universities, evidence of their money-making prowess is, to put it charitably, mixed. A recent Bloomberg report shows how quickly university patent incomes plunge once we look beyond the megastars. In 2014, just 15 US universities earned 70% of all patent royalties. British science policy researchers Paul Nightingale and Alex Coad conclude that ‘Roughly 9/10 US universities lose money on their technology transfer offices… MIT makes more money from selling T-shirts than it does from licensing’. A report from the Brookings institute concluded that the model of technology transfer ‘is unprofitable for most universities and sometimes even risks alienating the private sector’. In the UK, the situation is even worse. Businesses who have dealings with universities report that their technology transfer offices are often unrealistic in negotiations. In many cases, academics are, like a small child who refuses to let others play with a brand new football, unable to make the most of their gifts. And areas of science outside the life sciences are harder to patent than medicines, sports drinks and genetic engineering techniques. Trying too hard to force science towards the market may be, to use the phrase of science policy professor Keith Pavitt, like pushing a piece of string.

Science policy is slowly waking up to the realisation that the value of science may lie in people and places rather than papers and patents. It’s an idea that the Neuro, with the help of Tanenbaum’s gift, is going to test. By sharing data and giving away intellectual property, the initiative aims to attract new private partners to the institute and build Montreal as a hub for knowledge and innovation. The hypothesis is that this will be more lucrative than hoarding patents.

This experiment is not wishful thinking. It will be scientifically measured. It is the job of Richard Gold, a McGill University law professor, to see whether it works. He told me that his first task is ‘to figure out what to counts… There’s going to be a gap between what we would like to measure and what we can measure’. However, he sees an open-mindedness among his colleagues that is unusual. Some are evangelists for open science; some are sceptics. But they share a curiosity about new approaches and a recognition of a problem in neuroscience: ‘We haven’t come up with a new drug for Parkinson’s in 30 years. We don’t even understand the biological basis for many of these diseases. So whatever we’re doing at the moment doesn’t work’. …

Montreal Neuro made news on the ‘open science’ front in January 2016 when it formally announced its research would be freely available and that researchers would not be pursuing patents (see my January 22, 2016 posting).

I recommend reading Stilgoe’s posting in its entirety and for those who don’t know or have forgotten, Prime Minister’s Trudeau’s family has some experience with mental illness. His mother has been very open about her travails. This makes his presence at the announcement perhaps a bit more meaningful than the usual political presence at a major funding announcement.

*The five-year time limit is confirmed in a Feb. 17, 2017 McGill University news release about their presentations at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 2017 annual meeting) on EurekAlert,

umpstarting Neurological Research through Open Science – MNI & McGill University

Friday, February 17, 2017, 1:30-2:30 PM/ Room 208

Neurological research is advancing too slowly according to Dr. Guy Rouleau, director of the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) of McGill University. To speed up discovery, MNI has become the first ever Open Science academic institution in the world. In a five-year experiment, MNI is opening its books and making itself transparent to an international group of social scientists, policymakers, industrial partners, and members of civil society. They hope, by doing so, to accelerate research and the discovery of new treatments for patients with neurological diseases, and to encourage other leading institutions around the world to consider a similar model. A team led by McGill Faculty of Law’s Professor Richard Gold will monitor and evaluate how well the MNI Open Science experiment works and provide the scientific and policy worlds with insight into 21st century university-industry partnerships. At this workshop, Rouleau and Gold will discuss the benefits and challenges of this open-science initiative.

Morphing airplane wing

Long a science fiction trope, ‘morphing’, in this case, an airplane wing, is closer to reality with this work from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From a Nov. 3, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert),

When the Wright brothers accomplished their first powered flight more than a century ago, they controlled the motion of their Flyer 1 aircraft using wires and pulleys that bent and twisted the wood-and-canvas wings. This system was quite different than the separate, hinged flaps and ailerons that have performed those functions on most aircraft ever since. But now, thanks to some high-tech wizardry developed by engineers at MIT and NASA, some aircraft may be returning to their roots, with a new kind of bendable, “morphing” wing.

The new wing architecture, which could greatly simplify the manufacturing process and reduce fuel consumption by improving the wing’s aerodynamics, as well as improving its agility, is based on a system of tiny, lightweight subunits that could be assembled by a team of small specialized robots, and ultimately could be used to build the entire airframe. The wing would be covered by a “skin” made of overlapping pieces that might resemble scales or feathers.

The new concept is described in the journal Soft Robotics, in a paper by Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA); Benjamin Jenett, a CBA graduate student; Kenneth Cheung PhD ’12, a CBA alumnus and NASA research scientist; and four others.

Researchers have been trying for many years to achieve a reliable way of deforming wings as a substitute for the conventional, separate, moving surfaces, but all those efforts “have had little practical impact,” Gershenfeld says. The biggest problem was that most of these attempts relied on deforming the wing through the use of mechanical control structures within the wing, but these structures tended to be so heavy that they canceled out any efficiency advantages produced by the smoother aerodynamic surfaces. They also added complexity and reliability issues.

By contrast, Gershenfeld says, “We make the whole wing the mechanism. It’s not something we put into the wing.” In the team’s new approach, the whole shape of the wing can be changed, and twisted uniformly along its length, by activating two small motors that apply a twisting pressure to each wingtip.

Like building with blocks

The basic principle behind the new concept is the use of an array of tiny, lightweight structural pieces, which Gershenfeld calls “digital materials,” that can be assembled into a virtually infinite variety of shapes, much like assembling a structure from Lego blocks. The assembly, performed by hand for this initial experiment, could be done by simple miniature robots that would crawl along or inside the structure as it took shape. The team has already developed prototypes of such robots.

The individual pieces are strong and stiff, but the exact choice of the dimensions and materials used for the pieces, and the geometry of how they are assembled, allow for a precise tuning of the flexibility of the final shape. For the initial test structure, the goal was to allow the wing to twist in a precise way that would substitute for the motion of separate structural pieces (such as the small ailerons at the trailing edges of conventional wings), while providing a single, smooth aerodynamic surface.

Building up a large and complex structure from an array of small, identical building blocks, which have an exceptional combination of strength, light weight, and flexibility, greatly simplifies the manufacturing process, Gershenfeld explains. While the construction of light composite wings for today’s aircraft requires large, specialized equipment for layering and hardening the material, the new modular structures could be rapidly manufactured in mass quantities and then assembled robotically in place.

Gershenfeld and his team have been pursuing this approach to building complex structures for years, with many potential applications for robotic devices of various kinds. For example, this method could lead to robotic arms and legs whose shapes could bend continuously along their entire length, rather than just having a fixed number of joints.

This research, says Cheung, “presents a general strategy for increasing the performance of highly compliant — that is, ‘soft’ — robots and mechanisms,” by replacing conventional flexible materials with new cellular materials “that are much lower weight, more tunable, and can be made to dissipate energy at much lower rates” while having equivalent stiffness.

Saving fuel, cutting emissions

While exploring possible applications of this nascent technology, Gershenfeld and his team consulted with NASA engineers and others seeking ways to improve the efficiency of aircraft manufacturing and flight. They learned that “the idea that you could continuously deform a wing shape to do pure lift and roll has been a holy grail in the field, for both efficiency and agility,” he says. Given the importance of fuel costs in both the economics of the airline industry and that sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, even small improvements in fuel efficiency could have a significant impact.

Wind-tunnel tests of this structure showed that it at least matches the aerodynamic properties of a conventional wing, at about one-tenth the weight.

The “skin” of the wing also enhances the structure’s performance. It’s made from overlapping strips of flexible material, layered somewhat like feathers or fish scales, allowing for the pieces to move across each other as the wing flexes, while still providing a smooth outer surface.

The modular structure also provides greater ease of both assembly and disassembly: One of this system’s big advantages, in principle, Gershenfeld says, is that when it’s no longer needed, the whole structure can be taken apart into its component parts, which can then be reassembled into something completely different. Similarly, repairs could be made by simply replacing an area of damaged subunits.

“An inspection robot could just find where the broken part is and replace it, and keep the aircraft 100 percent healthy at all times,” says Jenett.

Following up on the successful wind tunnel tests, the team is now extending the work to tests of a flyable unpiloted aircraft, and initial tests have shown great promise, Jenett says. “The first tests were done by a certified test pilot, and he found it so responsive that he decided to do some aerobatics.”

Some of the first uses of the technology may be to make small, robotic aircraft — “super-efficient long-range drones,” Gershenfeld says, that could be used in developing countries as a way of delivering medicines to remote areas.

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

Digital Morphing Wing: Active Wing Shaping Concept Using Composite Lattice-Based Cellular Structures by Benjamin Jenett, Sam Calisch, Daniel Cellucci, Nick Cramer, Neil Gershenfeld, Sean Swei, and Kenneth C. Cheung. Soft Robotics. October 2016, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/soro.2016.0032. Published online: Oct. 26, 2016

This paper is open access.

Spinach and plant nanobionics

Who knew that spinach leaves could be turned into electronic devices? The answer is: engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to an Oct. 31, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Spinach is no longer just a superfood: By embedding leaves with carbon nanotubes, MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone.

This is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants, an approach that the researchers call “plant nanobionics.”

An Oct. 31, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research further (Note: Links have been removed),

“The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.

In this case, the plants were designed to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals is present in the groundwater sampled naturally by the plant, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera. The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user.

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” says Strano, who believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.

Strano is the senior author of a paper describing the nanobionic plants in the Oct. 31 [2016] issue of Nature Materials. The paper’s lead authors are Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student who has started a company called Plantea to further develop this technology, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.

Environmental monitoring

Two years ago, in the first demonstration of plant nanobionics, Strano and former MIT postdoc Juan Pablo Giraldo used nanoparticles to enhance plants’ photosynthesis ability and to turn them into sensors for nitric oxide, a pollutant produced by combustion.

Plants are ideally suited for monitoring the environment because they already take in a lot of information from their surroundings, Strano says.

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” he says. “They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.”

Strano’s lab has previously developed carbon nanotubes that can be used as sensors to detect a wide range of molecules, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT, and the nerve gas sarin. When the target molecule binds to a polymer wrapped around the nanotube, it alters the tube’s fluorescence.

In the new study, the researchers embedded sensors for nitroaromatic compounds into the leaves of spinach plants. Using a technique called vascular infusion, which involves applying a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the leaf, they placed the sensors into a leaf layer known as the mesophyll, which is where most photosynthesis takes place.

They also embedded carbon nanotubes that emit a constant fluorescent signal that serves as a reference. This allows the researchers to compare the two fluorescent signals, making it easier to determine if the explosive sensor has detected anything. If there are any explosive molecules in the groundwater, it takes about 10 minutes for the plant to draw them up into the leaves, where they encounter the detector.

To read the signal, the researchers shine a laser onto the leaf, prompting the nanotubes in the leaf to emit near-infrared fluorescent light. This can be detected with a small infrared camera connected to a Raspberry Pi, a $35 credit-card-sized computer similar to the computer inside a smartphone. The signal could also be detected with a smartphone by removing the infrared filter that most camera phones have, the researchers say.

“This setup could be replaced by a cell phone and the right kind of camera,” Strano says. “It’s just the infrared filter that would stop you from using your cell phone.”

Using this setup, the researchers can pick up a signal from about 1 meter away from the plant, and they are now working on increasing that distance.

Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, says this approach holds great potential for engineering not only sensors but many other kinds of bionic plants that might receive radio signals or change color.

“When you have manmade materials infiltrated into a living organism, you can have plants do things that plants don’t ordinarily do,” says McAlpine, who was not involved in the research. “Once you start to think of living organisms like plants as biomaterials that can be combined with electronic materials, this is all possible.”

“A wealth of information”

In the 2014 plant nanobionics study, Strano’s lab worked with a common laboratory plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana. However, the researchers wanted to use common spinach plants for the latest study, to demonstrate the versatility of this technique. “You can apply these techniques with any living plant,” Strano says.

So far, the researchers have also engineered spinach plants that can detect dopamine, which influences plant root growth, and they are now working on additional sensors, including some that track the chemicals plants use to convey information within their own tissues.

“Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Strano says. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

These sensors could also help botanists learn more about the inner workings of plants, monitor plant health, and maximize the yield of rare compounds synthesized by plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle, which produces drugs used to treat cancer.

“These sensors give real-time information from the plant. It is almost like having the plant talk to us about the environment they are in,” Wong says. “In the case of precision agriculture, having such information can directly affect yield and margins.”

Once getting over the excitement, questions spring to mind. How could this be implemented? Is somebody  going to plant a field of spinach and then embed the leaves so they can detect landmines? How will anyone know where to plant the spinach? And on a different track, is this spinach edible? I suspect that if spinach can be successfully used as a sensor, it might not be for explosives but for pollution as the researchers suggest.

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

Nitroaromatic detection and infrared communication from wild-type plants using plant nanobionics by Min Hao Wong, Juan P. Giraldo, Seon-Yeong Kwak, Volodymyr B. Koman, Rosalie Sinclair, Tedrick Thomas Salim Lew, Gili Bisker, Pingwei Liu, & Michael S. Strano. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4771 Published online 31 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

The last posting here which featured Strano’s research is in an Aug. 25, 2015 piece about carbon nanotubes and medical sensors.

Stretchy optical materials for implants that could pulse light

An Oct. 17, 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Emily Chu describes research that could lead to long-lasting implants offering preventive health strategies,

Researchers from MIT and Harvard Medical School have developed a biocompatible and highly stretchable optical fiber made from hydrogel — an elastic, rubbery material composed mostly of water. The fiber, which is as bendable as a rope of licorice, may one day be implanted in the body to deliver therapeutic pulses of light or light up at the first sign of disease. [emphasis mine]

The researchers say the fiber may serve as a long-lasting implant that would bend and twist with the body without breaking down. The team has published its results online in the journal Advanced Materials.

Using light to activate cells, and particularly neurons in the brain, is a highly active field known as optogenetics, in which researchers deliver short pulses of light to targeted tissues using needle-like fibers, through which they shine light from an LED source.

“But the brain is like a bowl of Jell-O, whereas these fibers are like glass — very rigid, which can possibly damage brain tissues,” says Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “If these fibers could match the flexibility and softness of the brain, they could provide long-term more effective stimulation and therapy.”

Getting to the core of it

Zhao’s group at MIT, including graduate students Xinyue Liu and Hyunwoo Yuk, specializes in tuning the mechanical properties of hydrogels. The researchers have devised multiple recipes for making tough yet pliable hydrogels out of various biopolymers. The team has also come up with ways to bond hydrogels with various surfaces such as metallic sensors and LEDs, to create stretchable electronics.

The researchers only thought to explore hydrogel’s use in optical fibers after conversations with the bio-optics group at Harvard Medical School, led by Associate Professor Seok-Hyun (Andy) Yun. Yun’s group had previously fabricated an optical fiber from hydrogel material that successfully transmitted light through the fiber. However, the material broke apart when bent or slightly stretched. Zhao’s hydrogels, in contrast, could stretch and bend like taffy. The two groups joined efforts and looked for ways to incorporate Zhao’s hydrogel into Yun’s optical fiber design.

Yun’s design consists of a core material encased in an outer cladding. To transmit the maximum amount of light through the core of the fiber, the core and the cladding should be made of materials with very different refractive indices, or degrees to which they can bend light.

“If these two things are too similar, whatever light source flows through the fiber will just fade away,” Yuk explains. “In optical fibers, people want to have a much higher refractive index in the core, versus cladding, so that when light goes through the core, it bounces off the interface of the cladding and stays within the core.”

Happily, they found that Zhao’s hydrogel material was highly transparent and possessed a refractive index that was ideal as a core material. But when they tried to coat the hydrogel with a cladding polymer solution, the two materials tended to peel apart when the fiber was stretched or bent.

To bond the two materials together, the researchers added conjugation chemicals to the cladding solution, which, when coated over the hydrogel core, generated chemical links between the outer surfaces of both materials.

“It clicks together the carboxyl groups in the cladding, and the amine groups in the core material, like molecular-level glue,” Yuk says.

Sensing strain

The researchers tested the optical fibers’ ability to propagate light by shining a laser through fibers of various lengths. Each fiber transmitted light without significant attenuation, or fading. They also found that fibers could be stretched over seven times their original length without breaking.

Now that they had developed a highly flexible and robust optical fiber, made from a hydrogel material that was also biocompatible, the researchers began to play with the fiber’s optical properties, to see if they could design a fiber that could sense when and where it was being stretched.

They first loaded a fiber with red, green, and blue organic dyes, placed at specific spots along the fiber’s length. Next, they shone a laser through the fiber and stretched, for instance, the red region. They measured the spectrum of light that made it all the way through the fiber, and noted the intensity of the red light. They reasoned that this intensity relates directly to the amount of light absorbed by the red dye, as a result of that region being stretched.

In other words, by measuring the amount of light at the far end of the fiber, the researchers can quantitatively determine where and by how much a fiber was stretched.

“When you stretch a certain portion of the fiber, the dimensions of that part of the fiber changes, along with the amount of light that region absorbs and scatters, so in this way, the fiber can serve as a sensor of strain,” Liu explains.

“This is like a multistrain sensor through a single fiber,” Yuk adds. “So it can be an implantable or wearable strain gauge.”

The researchers imagine that such stretchable, strain-sensing optical fibers could be implanted or fitted along the length of a patient’s arm or leg, to monitor for signs of improving mobility.

Zhao envisions the fibers may also serve as sensors, lighting up in response to signs of disease.

“We may be able to use optical fibers for long-term diagnostics, to optically monitor tumors or inflammation,” he says. “The applications can be impactful.”

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

Highly Stretchable, Strain Sensing Hydrogel Optical Fibers by Jingjing Guo, Xinyue Liu, Nan Jiang, Ali K. Yetisen, Hyunwoo Yuk, Changxi Yang, Ali Khademhosseini, Xuanhe Zhao, and Seok-Hyun Yun. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201603160 Version of Record online: 7 OCT 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.