Tag Archives: NSF

A view to controversies about nanoparticle drug delivery, sticky-flares, and a PNAS surprise

Despite all the excitement and claims for nanoparticles as vehicles for drug delivery to ‘sick’ cells there is at least one substantive problem, the drug-laden nanoparticles don’t actually enter the interior of the cell. They are held in a kind of cellular ‘waiting room’.

Leonid Schneider in a Nov. 20, 2015 posting on his For Better Science blog describes the process in more detail,

A large body of scientific nanotechnology literature is dedicated to the biomedical aspect of nanoparticle delivery into cells and tissues. The functionalization of the nanoparticle surface is designed to insure their specificity at targeting only a certain type of cells, such as cancers cells. Other technological approaches aim at the cargo design, in order to ensure the targeted release of various biologically active agents: small pharmacological substances, peptides or entire enzymes, or nucleotides such as regulatory small RNAs or even genes. There is however a main limitation to this approach: though cells do readily take up nanoparticles through specific membrane-bound receptor interaction (endocytosis) or randomly (pinocytosis), these nanoparticles hardly ever truly reach the inside of the cell, namely its nucleocytoplasmic space. Solid nanoparticles are namely continuously surrounded by the very same membrane barrier they first interacted with when entering the cell. These outer-cell membrane compartments mature into endosomal and then lysosomal vesicles, where their cargo is subjected to low pH and enzymatic digestion. The nanoparticles, though seemingly inside the cell, remain actually outside. …

What follows is a stellar piece featuring counterclaims about and including Schneider’s own journalistic research into scientific claims that the problem of gaining entry to a cell’s true interior has been addressed by technologies developed in two different labs.

Having featured one of the technologies here in a July 24, 2015 posting titled: Sticky-flares nanotechnology to track and observe RNA (ribonucleic acid) regulation and having been contacted a couple of times by one of the scientists, Raphaël Lévy from the University of Liverpool (UK), challenging the claims made (Lévy’s responses can be found in the comments section of the July 2015 posting), I thought a followup of sorts was in order.

Scientific debates (then and now)

Scientific debates and controversies are part and parcel of the scientific process and what most outsiders, such as myself, don’t realize is how fraught it is. For a good example from the past, there’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (from its Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed),

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (published 1985) is a book by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. It examines the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over Boyle’s air-pump experiments in the 1660s.

The style seems more genteel than what a contemporary Canadian or US audience is accustomed to but Hobbes and Boyle (and proponents of both sides) engaged in bruising communication.

There was a lot at stake then and now. It’s not just the power, prestige, and money, as powerfully motivating as they are, it’s the research itself. Scientists work for years to achieve breakthroughs or to add more to our common store of knowledge. It’s painstaking and if you work at something for a long time, you tend to be invested in it. Saying you’ve wasted ten years of your life looking at the problem the wrong way or have misunderstood your data is not easy.

As for the current debate, Schneider’s description gives no indication that there is rancour between any of the parties but it does provide a fascinating view of two scientists challenging one of the US’s nanomedicine rockstars, Chad Mirkin. The following excerpt follows the latest technical breakthroughs to the interior portion of the cell through three phases of the naming conventions (Nano-Flares, also known by its trade name, SmartFlares, which is a precursor technology to Sticky-Flares), Note: Links have been removed,

The next family of allegedly nucleocytoplasmic nanoparticles which Lévy turned his attention to, was that of the so called “spherical nucleic acids”, developed in the lab of Chad Mirkin, multiple professor and director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at the Northwestern University, USA. These so called “Nano-Flares” are gold nanoparticles, functionalized with fluorophore-coupled oligonucleotides matching the messenger RNA (mRNA) of interest (Prigodich et al., ACS Nano 3:2147-2152, 2009; Seferos et al., J Am. Chem.Soc. 129:15477-15479, 2007). The mRNA detection method is such that the fluorescence is initially quenched by the gold nanoparticle proximity. Yet when the oligonucleotide is displaced by the specific binding of the mRNA molecules present inside the cell, the fluorescence becomes detectable and serves thus as quantitative read-out for the intracellular mRNA abundance. Exactly this is where concerns arise. To find and bind mRNA, spherical nucleic acids must leave the endosomal compartments. Is there any evidence that Nano-Flares ever achieve this and reach intact the nucleocytoplasmatic space, where their target mRNA is?

Lévy’s lab has focused its research on the commercially available analogue of the Nano-Flares, based on the patent to Mirkin and Northwestern University and sold by Merck Millipore under the trade name of SmartFlares. These were described by Mirkin as “a powerful and prolific tool in biology and medical diagnostics, with ∼ 1,600 unique forms commercially available today”. The work, led by Lévy’s postdoctoral scientist David Mason, now available in post-publication process at ScienceOpen and on Figshare, found no experimental evidence for SmartFlares to be ever found outside the endosomal membrane vesicles. On the contrary, the analysis by several complementary approaches, i.e., electron, fluorescence and photothermal microscopy, revealed that the probes are retained exclusively within the endosomal compartments.

In fact, even Merck Millipore was apparently well aware of this problem when the product was developed for the market. As I learned, Merck performed a number of assays to address the specificity issue. Multiple hundred-fold induction of mRNA by biological cell stimulation (confirmed by quantitative RT-PCR) led to no significant changes in the corresponding SmartFlare signal. Similarly, biological gene downregulation or experimental siRNA knock-down had no effect on the corresponding SmartFlare fluorescence. Cell lines confirmed as negative for a certain biomarker proved highly positive in a SmartFlare assay.  Live cell imaging showed the SmartFlare signal to be almost entirely mitochondrial, inconsistent with reported patterns of the respective mRNA distributions.  Elsewhere however, cyanine dye-labelled oligonucleotides were found to unspecifically localise to mitochondria   (Orio et al., J. RNAi Gene Silencing 9:479-485, 2013), which might account to the often observed punctate Smart Flare signal.

More recently, Mirkin lab has developed a novel version of spherical nucleic acids, named Sticky-Flares (Briley et al., PNAS 112:9591-9595, 2015), which has also been patented for commercial use. The claim is that “the Sticky-flare is capable of entering live cells without the need for transfection agents and recognizing target RNA transcripts in a sequence-specific manner”. To confirm this, Lévy used the same approach as for the striped nanoparticles [not excerpted here]: he approached Mirkin by email and in person, requesting the original microscopy data from this publication. As Mirkin appeared reluctant, Lévy invoked the rules for data sharing by the journal PNAS, the funder NSF as well as the Northwestern University. After finally receiving Mirkin’s thin-optical microscopy data by air mail, Lévy and Mason re-analyzed it and determined the absence of any evidence for endosomal escape, while all Sticky-Flare particles appeared to be localized exclusively inside vesicular membrane compartments, i.e., endosomes (Mason & Levy, bioRxiv 2015).

I encourage you to read Schneider’s Nov. 20, 2015 posting in its entirety as these excerpts can’t do justice to it.

The PNAS surprise

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) published one of Mirkin’s papers on ‘Sticky-flares’ and is where scientists, Raphaël Lévy and David Mason, submitted a letter outlining their concerns with the ‘Sticky-flares’ research. Here’s the response as reproduced in Lévy’s Nov. 16, 2015 posting on his Rapha-Z-Lab blog

Dear Dr. Levy,

I regret to inform you that the PNAS Editorial Board has declined to publish your Letter to the Editor. After careful consideration, the Board has decided that your letter does not contribute significantly to the discussion of this paper.

Thank you for submitting your comments to PNAS.

Sincerely yours,
Inder Verma

Judge for yourself, Lévy’s and Mason’s letter can be found here (pdf) and here.


My primary interest in this story is in the view it provides of the scientific process and the importance of and difficulty associated with the debates.

I can’t venture an opinion about the research or the counterarguments other than to say that Lévy’s and Mason’s thoughtful challenge bears more examination than PNAS is inclined to accord. If their conclusions or Chad Mirkin’s are wrong, let that be determined in an open process.

I’ll leave the very last comment to Schneider who is both writer and cartoonist, from his Nov. 20, 2015 posting,


(US) Contest: Design a nanotechnology-themed superhero

This contest is open to students enrolled in US high schools or home-schooled and the deadline is Feb. 2, 2016.

High school students can lend their creativity to engineering, science and nanotechnology. Credit: NSF

High school students can lend their creativity to engineering, science and nanotechnology. Credit: NSF

Here are more details from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Nov. 19, 2015 news release,

A brand-new competition, awarding finalists the opportunity to present their entries at the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival [held April 16 & 17, 2016] and compete for cash prizes, opens today for high school students interested in science, engineering and superpowers.

Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The competition invites individual students enrolled in U.S. high schools, or who are home-schooled, to submit an original idea for a superhero who uses unique nanotechnology-inspired “gear,” such as a vehicle, costume or tool.

Generation Nano encourages students to think big–which, in this case, means super small–when pondering their hero’s gear: shoelaces that decode secret radio waves, nanotechnology-infused blood cells that supercharge adrenaline or clothing that can change color to camouflage its wearer.

“The wonders of nanotechnology are inspiring an increasing number of young students to pursue science and engineering,” said NSF Senior Advisor for Science and Engineering Mihail C. Roco. “The Generation Nano competition recognizes and channels that interest, while giving students the chance to showcase their creativity at a national level.”

“I’m just thrilled about Generation Nano,” said Lisa Friedersdorf, deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. “This competition has the potential to excite students about science and introduce them to the novel world of nanotechnology. I can’t wait to see the submissions.”

Competition details:

  • Students must submit a written entry explaining their superhero and nanotechnology-driven gear, along with a one-page comic or 90-second video.
  • Cash prizes are $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second place and $500 for third place.
  • Finalists will showcase their comic or video at the 2016 USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. Final-round judging will take place at the festival.
  • Submissions are due by midnight on Feb. 2, 2016.

Through nanotechnology applications like targeted drugs, self-assembled nanodevices, molecular motors and other innovations, students never have to endure a radioactive spider bite to realize their full potential.

Visit the Generation Nano competition website for full eligibility criteria, entry guidelines, timeline and prize information.

The Generation Nano website offers resources for generating comics, accessing images and audio on this page.

For inspiration, you can take a look at my May 11, 2012 posting which features a description of the nanotechnology-enabled Extremis storyline in the Iron Man comic book series in the context of plans for the Iron Man 3 movie.

For more inspiration from 2012, there was a special exhibit at the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland featuring six superheroes created for the exhibit (my Sept. 14, 2012 posting; scroll down about 25% of the way to where I discuss the Magical Materials; Unleash Your Superpowers exhibit).

Good luck!

Reactions to Canada’s 2015 election Liberal majority and speculations about science and the new cabinet

The euphoria is dying down and, on balance, there was surprisingly little, the tone being more one of optimism laced with caution on the occasion of the Conservative’s defeat at the hands of the Liberal party in the Oct. 19, 2015 Canadian federal election.

Of course the big question for me and other Canadian science bloggers is:

What about science in the wake of the 2015 Liberal majority government in Canada?

I’ve gathered bits and pieces from various published opinions on the topic. First, there’s Brian Owen, a freelance writer in St. Stephen, New Brunswick (there’s more about him in my Aug. 18, 2015 posting about the upcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference to be held Nov. 25 -27, 2015 in Ottawa [Canada’s capital]) in an Oct. 20, 2015 opinion piece for ScienceInsider,

Many Canadian scientists are celebrating the result of yesterday’s federal election, which saw Stephen Harper’s Conservative government defeated after nearly 10 years in power.

The center-left Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau won an unexpected majority government, taking 184 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives will form the opposition with 99 seats, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) fell to third place with just 44 seats.

“Many scientists will be pleased with the outcome,” says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. “The Liberal party has a strong record in supporting science.” [emphasis mine]

I don’t think the Liberal record is that great. If I understand it rightly, the first muzzle placed on government scientists was applied by a then Liberal government to Health Canada. That’s right the Conservatives got the idea from the Liberals and it’s not the only one they got from that source. Omnibus bills were also pioneered by the Liberal government.

However, hope still springs in mine and others’ bosoms as can be seen in an Oct. 21, 2015 essay in the Guardian (UK newspaper) by Michael Halpern of the Center for Science and Democracy at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists  (Note: Links have been removed),

There was a palpable outpouring of relief from Canadian scientists as the Liberal Party won a majority on Monday night [Oct. 19, 2015], bringing to an end nine years of escalating hostility by the Harper government towards its own research base. Drastic cuts to funding and constraints on scientific freedom have significantly damaged Canadian research and its capacity to develop science-based public health and environmental policies.

Eight hundred scientists from thirty-two countries wrote an open letter urging the prime minster to ease restrictions on scientists and data. In October 2014, a Ryerson University professor wrote in Science magazine that the election presented an “opportunity to reboot the federal government’s controversial approach to science policy and research.”

All of this advocacy worked. Science became a major campaign issue during the election. There were all-party debates on science policy and extensive media coverage. The Green, Liberal and NDP platforms included significant commitments to restore science to its rightful place in society and public policy.

“We’ll reverse the $40 million cut that Harper made to our federal ocean science and monitoring programs,” said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau at a September campaign stop. “The war on science ends with the liberal government.” In tweet after tweet after tweet, opposition candidates argued that they were best positioned to defend scientific integrity.

Now that it’s been elected with a healthy majority, the Liberal Party says it will make data openly available, unmuzzle scientists, bring back the long form census, appoint a chief science officer, and make the agency Statistics Canada fully independent.

In the United States, many celebrated the end of the Bush administration in 2008, thinking that its restrictions on science would evaporate the moment that the Obama administration took office. It wasn’t true. There has been significant progress in protecting scientists from political influence. But the public has still lacked access to scientific information on multiple environmental and public health issues.

So who will keep watch over the new government, as it’s forced to choose among its many priorities? Canadian unions, scientists, policy experts and activists need to continue to push for real change. It’s up to those who care most about science and democracy to keep Trudeau on his toes.

Returning to Owen’s article, there are more pledges from the new Liberal government,

… Trudeau has also said his party will embrace “evidence based policy” and “data-driven decision-making,”  do more to address climate change, protect endangered species, and review the environmental impact of major energy and development projects.

Woodgett welcomes those pledges, but warns that they would not address the larger issue of what he sees as the government’s neglect of basic research funding. “I hope we will see less short-term thinking and much greater support for discovery research going forward,” he says. “We are at serious risk of a lost generation of scientists and it’s critical that younger researchers are given a clear indication that Canada is open to their ideas and needs.”

Science advocates plan to watch the new government closely to ensure it lives up to its promises. “Great to see Harper gone, but another majority is an awfully big blank cheque,” wrote Michael Rennie, a freshwater ecologist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, on Twitter.

David Bruggeman in a cautionary Oct. 22, 2015 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) sums things up in this title: Will New Canadian Government Be The Change Its Scientists Can Believe In? (Note: Links have been removed),

… Only one of the four party representatives at the recent science and technology debate managed to win a seat in the upcoming Parliament.  MP Marc Garneau will remain in Parliament, and his experience in the Canadian Space Agency means he may be able to better manage the changes sought in official government (as opposed to Parliamentary) policy.

The Conservatives will now shift to being the Official Opposition (the largest party not in power).  However, the current cabinet minister responsible for science and technology, and at least two of his predecessors, lost their seats.  The party that was the Official Opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP), lost several seats, returning to the third largest party in Parliament.  (However, they appear to be a more natural ally for the Liberals than the Conservatives) MP Kennedy Stewart, who has championed the establishment of a Parliamentary Science Officer, barely retained his seat.  He will likely remain as the NDP science critic.

… While the policies on media access to government scientists are part of this trend, they may not be the first priority for Trudeau and his cabinet.  It may turn out to be something similar to the transition from the Bush to the Obama Administrations.  Changes to policies concerning so-called political interference with science were promised, but have not gotten the thorough commitment from the Obama Administration that some would have liked and/or expected.

As David notes. we lost significant critical voices when those Conservative MPs failed to get re-elected.

In a post-election Oct. 24, 2015 posting, Sarah Boon offers a call to action on her Watershed Moments blog (Note: Links have been removed),

I think it’s important to realize, however, that the work doesn’t end here.

Canadian scientists found their voice in the run up to the election, but they’d better not lose it now.

In a pre-election editorial on the Science Borealis Blog, Pascal Lapointe suggested that – after the election – the organizations that worked so hard to make science an election issue should join forces and keep pushing the government to keep science as a top priority. These groups include Evidence for Democracy, the Science Integrity Project, Get Science Right, Our Right to Know, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and more.

Finally, there’s an Oct. 20, 2015 posting by Canadians Julia Whidden and Rachel Skubel on the Southern Fried Science blog explaining the Canadian election to American colleagues in what begins in a facey style which, thankfully and quickly, switches to informative and opinionated (Note: They have nothing good to say about the Conservatives and science),

Up until this past year, the thought of Canadian politics had probably never crossed your mind. For some of you, your introduction to the topic may have been via the astute criticisms of John Oliver published this past weekend. His YouTube video currently skyrocketing at just under 3 million views in less than 48 hours, may have even been the introduction to Canadian politics for some Canadians. Let’s face it: in comparison to the flashy and sometimes trashy race of our neighbors to the south (ahem, you Americans), Canadian politics are usually tame, boring, and dry. …

We present a few major issues related to marine science and conservation that Harper either dragged down or destroyed, and the complementary response by our new PM Trudeau from his platform. …

Based on the Liberals party’s platform, and their statements throughout the last year, here’s a taste of the contrasts between old and new:

Harper/Conservatives Trudeau/Liberals
Marine Protected AreasCommitted in 2011 to protect 10% of Canada’s coastal marine and coastal areas by 2020 under the International Convention on Biodiversity, but is lagging at a meager 1.3% – and only 0.11% is fully closed to “extractive activities.” 




Proposed MPAs have been stalled by inaction, failure to cooperate by the federal government or stakeholders, and overall a system which needs an infusion of resources – not cuts – to meet ambitious goals.

“We will increase the amount of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected from 1.3 percent to 5 percent by 2017, and 10 percent by 2020.” Liberal Party’s Protecting our Oceans mandate

There is a bit of misinformation in the Southern Fried Science posting,

The National Research Council (NRC) is Canada’s equivalent of America’s National Science Foundation (NSF).

The closest analogue to the US National Science Foundation is Canada’s Tri-Council Agencies comprised of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Next step: appointing a cabinet

Oddly, I haven’t found anyone speculating as to what will happen to science when Justin Trudeau announces his cabinet. He has already stated that his cabinet will be significantly smaller than Stephen Harper’s cabinet of 39 ministers. Numbers for the new cabinet range from 25 to 28 to 30. The largest proposed Trudeau cabinet (30) is almost 25% less than the previous one. Clearly, some ministries will have to go or be combined with other ones.

I’m guessing that Science, which is considered a junior ministry, will be rolled into another ministry, possibly Industry, to be renamed, Industry and Science. Or, by appointing a Chief Science Advisor, Trudeau trumpets the new importance of science with this special status and disburses the Science Ministry responsibilities amongst a variety of ministries.

In any event, I look forward to finding out later this week (Nov. 2 – 6, 2015) whether either or neither of my predictions comes true.

*Canadian cabinet update: To see how I got it both wrong and right see my Nov.4, 2015 posting.

ETA Nov. 5, 2015: I found one more piece for this roundup, an Oct. 22, 2015 article by Helen Carmichael for Chemistry World published by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (Note: Links have been removed),

There will likely be a shift in the Canadian government’s target research areas towards areas such as green energy and away from fossil fuels, observers say. In addition, they expect that the Trudeau government will be more hands off when it comes to the science that it funds – giving money to the granting councils and trusting them to disburse those funds via peer review. …

The way that science is funded – the politicisation of science – will be less of an issue for the next while,’ says John Brennan, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who directs the school’s Biointerfaces Institute.

Trudeau and his Liberal party have promised to appoint a chief science officer similar to the national science adviser position that the Harper government eliminated in 2008. Canada’s new chief science officer would report to the prime minister and ensure that government science is available to the public, that all the country’s scientists are able to speak freely about their work and that scientific analyses are considered when the Canadian government develops policy. The Trudeau government has also said that it will create a central online portal for government-funded scientific research to enable greater public access.

The Liberals offer quite a different vision for the Canadian economy than the Conservatives, planning to run short-term budget deficits to increase government spending on public infrastructure, and to return the country to a balanced budget in 2019–20. The party has committed to C$25 million (£12 million) in funding for National Parks and reversing budget cuts to government ocean science and monitoring programmes.

In addition to proposing initiatives to increase business investment in research and development, the Liberals want a tax credit, and will invest C$200 million annually to support innovation in the forestry, fisheries, mining, energy and agriculture sectors. Public science is particularly important in Canada, where the private sector funds a much lower proportion of research than most industrialised nations.

Provincial governments own Canada’s natural resources, with fossil fuel production largely in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Energy production is a major part of the Canadian economy. Trudeau has committed to set up a C$2 billion fund to help the country transition to a low carbon economy, but meanwhile he is not expected to withdraw support for the proposed Alberta to Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Incoming president and chief executive of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), Bob Masterson, recently told Chemistry World that rapid policy decisions by Canadian governments and retailers, without sufficient consultation with industry, are not advantageous or based on sound science. He described missed opportunities for the Canadian chemical industry to engage with regulators, coupled with a lack of coordination between various tiers of Canada’s national and regional regulations. On key issues, such as Canada’s Chemical Management Plan, global trade and maintaining competitive corporate tax rates, Masterson says the CIAC believes the liberal positions represent continuity rather than change from the previous government.

Carmichael’s offers a good overview and is the only one of *three* (the others* being from David Bruggeman *and Michael Halpern*) analyses  I’ve found, that are being written by people who are not navel gazing.

*’two’ changed to ‘three’, ‘other’ changed to ‘others’, and ‘and Michael Halpern’ added 1250 PST on Nov. 5, 2015.

Funding trends for US synthetic biology efforts

Less than 1% of total US federal funding for synthetic biology is dedicated to risk research according to a Sept. 16, 2015 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars news release on EurekAlert,

A new analysis by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Wilson Center finds the Defense Department and its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fund much of the U.S. government’s research in synthetic biology, with less than 1 percent of total federal funding going to risk research.

The report, U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research, finds that between 2008 and 2014, the United States invested approximately $820 million dollars in synthetic biology research. In that time period, the Defense Department became a key funder of synthetic biology research. DARPA’s investments, for example, increased from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014 – more than three times the amount spent by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Wilson Center news release can also be found here on the Center’s report publication page where it goes on to provide more detail and where you can download the report,

The report, U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research, finds that between 2008 and 2014, the United States invested approximately $820 million dollars in synthetic biology research. In that time period, the Defense Department became a key funder of synthetic biology research. DARPA’s investments, for example, increased from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014 – more than three times the amount spent by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The increase in DARPA research spending comes as NSF is winding down its initial investment in the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, or SynBERC,” says Dr. Todd Kuiken, senior program associate with the project. “After the SynBERC funding ends next year, it is unclear if there will be a dedicated synthetic biology research program outside of the Pentagon. There is also little investment addressing potential risks and ethical issues, which can affect public acceptance and market growth as the field advances.”

The new study found that less than one percent of the total U.S. funding is focused on synthetic biology risk research and approximately one percent addresses ethical, legal, and social issues.

Internationally, research funding is increasing. Last year, research investments by the European Commission and research agencies in the United Kingdom exceeded non-defense spending in the United States, the report finds.

The research spending comes at a time of growing interest in synthetic biology, particularly surrounding the potential presented by new gene-editing techniques. Recent research by the industry group SynBioBeta indicated that, so far in 2015, synthetic biology companies raised half a billion dollars – more than the total investments in 2013 and 2014 combined.

In a separate Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Sept. 16, 2015 announcement about the report, an upcoming event notice was included,

Save the date: On Oct. 7, 2015, the Synthetic Biology Project will be releasing a new report on synthetic biology and federal regulations. More details will be forthcoming, but the report release will include a noon event [EST] at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

I haven’t been able to find any more information about this proposed report launch but you may want to check the Synthetic Biology Project website for details as they become available. ETA Oct. 1, 2015: The new report titled: Leveraging Synthetic Biology’s Promise and Managing Potential Risk: Are We Getting It Right? will be launched on Oct. 15, 2015 according to an Oct. 1, 2015 notice,

As more applications based on synthetic biology come to market, are the existing federal regulations adequate to address the risks posed by this emerging technology?

Please join us for the release of our new report, Leveraging Synthetic Biology’s Promise and Managing Potential Risk: Are We Getting It Right? Panelists will discuss how synthetic biology applications would be regulated by the U.S. Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, how this would affect the market pathway of these applications and whether the existing framework will protect human health and the environment.

A light lunch will be served.


Lynn Bergeson, report author; Managing Partner, Bergeson & Campbell

David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program

Thursday,October 15th, 2015
12:00pm – 2:00pm

6th Floor Board Room


Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Phone: 202.691.4000


$81M for US National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI)

Academics, small business, and industry researchers are the big winners in a US National Science Foundation bonanza according to a Sept. 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

To advance research in nanoscale science, engineering and technology, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide a total of $81 million over five years to support 16 sites and a coordinating office as part of a new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI).

The NNCI sites will provide researchers from academia, government, and companies large and small with access to university user facilities with leading-edge fabrication and characterization tools, instrumentation, and expertise within all disciplines of nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

A Sept. 16, 2015 NSF news release provides a brief history of US nanotechnology infrastructures and describes this latest effort in slightly more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The NNCI framework builds on the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which enabled major discoveries, innovations, and contributions to education and commerce for more than 10 years.

“NSF’s long-standing investments in nanotechnology infrastructure have helped the research community to make great progress by making research facilities available,” said Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director for engineering. “NNCI will serve as a nationwide backbone for nanoscale research, which will lead to continuing innovations and economic and societal benefits.”

The awards are up to five years and range from $500,000 to $1.6 million each per year. Nine of the sites have at least one regional partner institution. These 16 sites are located in 15 states and involve 27 universities across the nation.

Through a fiscal year 2016 competition, one of the newly awarded sites will be chosen to coordinate the facilities. This coordinating office will enhance the sites’ impact as a national nanotechnology infrastructure and establish a web portal to link the individual facilities’ websites to provide a unified entry point to the user community of overall capabilities, tools and instrumentation. The office will also help to coordinate and disseminate best practices for national-level education and outreach programs across sites.

New NNCI awards:

Mid-Atlantic Nanotechnology Hub for Research, Education and Innovation, University of Pennsylvania with partner Community College of Philadelphia, principal investigator (PI): Mark Allen
Texas Nanofabrication Facility, University of Texas at Austin, PI: Sanjay Banerjee

Northwest Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of Washington with partner Oregon State University, PI: Karl Bohringer

Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor, Georgia Institute of Technology with partners North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina-Greensboro, PI: Oliver Brand

Midwest Nano Infrastructure Corridor, University of  Minnesota Twin Cities with partner North Dakota State University, PI: Stephen Campbell

Montana Nanotechnology Facility, Montana State University with partner Carlton College, PI: David Dickensheets
Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental Resource,

Northwestern University with partner University of Chicago, PI: Vinayak Dravid

The Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, PI: Michael Hochella

North Carolina Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network, North Carolina State University with partners Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, PI: Jacob Jones

San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of California, San Diego, PI: Yu-Hwa Lo

Stanford Site, Stanford University, PI: Kathryn Moler

Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility, Cornell University, PI: Daniel Ralph

Nebraska Nanoscale Facility, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, PI: David Sellmyer

Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, Arizona State University with partners Maricopa County Community College District and Science Foundation Arizona, PI: Trevor Thornton

The Kentucky Multi-scale Manufacturing and Nano Integration Node, University of Louisville with partner University of Kentucky, PI: Kevin Walsh

The Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, Harvard University, PI: Robert Westervelt

The universities are trumpeting this latest nanotechnology funding,

NSF-funded network set to help businesses, educators pursue nanotechnology innovation (North Carolina State University, Duke University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Nanotech expertise earns Virginia Tech a spot in National Science Foundation network

ASU [Arizona State University] chosen to lead national nanotechnology site

UChicago, Northwestern awarded $5 million nanotechnology infrastructure grant

That is a lot of excitement.

Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology or how not to poison and make the planet uninhabitable

I received notice of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology’s newest deal with the US National Science Foundation in an August 31, 2015 email University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) news release,

The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, a multi-institutional research center based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has inked a new contract with the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will provide nearly $20 million in support over the next five years.

Directed by UW-Madison chemistry Professor Robert Hamers, the center focuses on the molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems.

Nanotechnology involves the use of materials at the smallest scale, including the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. Products that use nanoscale materials range from beer bottles and car wax to solar cells and electric and hybrid car batteries. If you read your books on a Kindle, a semiconducting material manufactured at the nanoscale underpins the high-resolution screen.

While there are already hundreds of products that use nanomaterials in various ways, much remains unknown about how these modern materials and the tiny particles they are composed of interact with the environment and living things.

“The purpose of the center is to explore how we can make sure these nanotechnologies come to fruition with little or no environmental impact,” explains Hamers. “We’re looking at nanoparticles in emerging technologies.”

In addition to UW-Madison, scientists from UW-Milwaukee, the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois, Northwestern University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been involved in the center’s first phase of research. Joining the center for the next five-year phase are Tuskegee University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Iowa, Augsburg College, Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

At UW-Madison, Hamers leads efforts in synthesis and molecular characterization of nanomaterials. soil science Professor Joel Pedersen and chemistry Professor Qiang Cui lead groups exploring the biological and computational aspects of how nanomaterials affect life.

Much remains to be learned about how nanoparticles affect the environment and the multitude of organisms – from bacteria to plants, animals and people – that may be exposed to them.

“Some of the big questions we’re asking are: How is this going to impact bacteria and other organisms in the environment? What do these particles do? How do they interact with organisms?” says Hamers.

For instance, bacteria, the vast majority of which are beneficial or benign organisms, tend to be “sticky” and nanoparticles might cling to the microorganisms and have unintended biological effects.

“There are many different mechanisms by which these particles can do things,” Hamers adds. “The challenge is we don’t know what these nanoparticles do if they’re released into the environment.”

To get at the challenge, Hamers and his UW-Madison colleagues are drilling down to investigate the molecular-level chemical and physical principles that dictate how nanoparticles interact with living things.
Pedersen’s group, for example, is studying the complexities of how nanoparticles interact with cells and, in particular, their surface membranes.

“To enter a cell, a nanoparticle has to interact with a membrane,” notes Pedersen. “The simplest thing that can happen is the particle sticks to the cell. But it might cause toxicity or make a hole in the membrane.”

Pedersen’s group can make model cell membranes in the lab using the same lipids and proteins that are the building blocks of nature’s cells. By exposing the lab-made membranes to nanomaterials now used commercially, Pedersen and his colleagues can see how the membrane-particle interaction unfolds at the molecular level – the scale necessary to begin to understand the biological effects of the particles.

Such studies, Hamers argues, promise a science-based understanding that can help ensure the technology leaves a minimal environmental footprint by identifying issues before they manifest themselves in the manufacturing, use or recycling of products that contain nanotechnology-inspired materials.

To help fulfill that part of the mission, the center has established working relationships with several companies to conduct research on materials in the very early stages of development.

“We’re taking a look-ahead view. We’re trying to get into the technological design cycle,” Hamers says. “The idea is to use scientific understanding to develop a predictive ability to guide technology and guide people who are designing and using these materials.”

What with this initiative and the LCnano Network at Arizona State University (my April 8, 2014 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way), it seems that environmental and health and safety studies of nanomaterials are kicking into a higher gear as commercialization efforts intensify.

US White House establishes new initiatives to commercialize nanotechnology

As I’ve noted several times, there’s a strong push in the US to commercialize nanotechnology and May 20, 2015 was a banner day for the efforts. The US White House announced a series of new initiatives to speed commercialization efforts in a May 20, 2015 posting by Lloyd Whitman, Tom Kalil, and JJ Raynor,

Today, May 20 [2015], the National Economic Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy held a forum at the White House to discuss opportunities to accelerate the commercialization of nanotechnology.

In recognition of the importance of nanotechnology R&D, representatives from companies, government agencies, colleges and universities, and non-profits are announcing a series of new and expanded public and private initiatives that complement the Administration’s efforts to accelerate the commercialization of nanotechnology and expand the nanotechnology workforce:

  • The Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, NY and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are launching the Nano Health & Safety Consortium to advance research and guidance for occupational safety and health in the nanoelectronics and other nanomanufacturing industry settings.
  • Raytheon has brought together a group of representatives from the defense industry and the Department of Defense to identify collaborative opportunities to advance nanotechnology product development, manufacturing, and supply-chain support with a goal of helping the U.S. optimize development, foster innovation, and take more rapid advantage of new commercial nanotechnologies.
  • BASF Corporation is taking a new approach to finding solutions to nanomanufacturing challenges. In March, BASF launched a prize-based “NanoChallenge” designed to drive new levels of collaborative innovation in nanotechnology while connecting with potential partners to co-create solutions that address industry challenges.
  • OCSiAl is expanding the eligibility of its “iNanoComm” matching grant program that provides low-cost, single-walled carbon nanotubes to include more exploratory research proposals, especially proposals for projects that could result in the creation of startups and technology transfers.
  • The NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA) is partnering with Venture for America and working with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to promote entrepreneurship in nanotechnology.  Three companies (PEN, NanoMech, and SouthWest NanoTechnologies), are offering to support NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program with mentorship for entrepreneurs-in-training and, along with three other companies (NanoViricides, mPhase Technologies, and Eikos), will partner with Venture for America to hire recent graduates into nanotechnology jobs, thereby strengthening new nanotech businesses while providing needed experience for future entrepreneurs.
  • TechConnect is establishing a Nano and Emerging Technologies Student Leaders Conference to bring together the leaders of nanotechnology student groups from across the country. The conference will highlight undergraduate research and connect students with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders.  Five universities have already committed to participating, led by the University of Virginia Nano and Emerging Technologies Club.
  • Brewer Science, through its Global Intern Program, is providing more than 30 students from high schools, colleges, and graduate schools across the country with hands-on experience in a wide range of functions within the company.  Brewer Science plans to increase the number of its science and engineering interns by 50% next year and has committed to sharing best practices with other nanotechnology businesses interested in how internship programs can contribute to a small company’s success.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology is expanding its partnership with the National Science Foundation to provide hands-on experience for students in NSF’s Advanced Technology Education program. The partnership will now run year-round and will include opportunities for students at Hudson Valley Community College and the University of the District of Columbia Community College.
  • Federal agencies participating in the NNI [US National Nanotechnology Initiative], supported by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office [NNCO], are launching multiple new activities aimed at educating students and the public about nanotechnology, including image and video contests highlighting student research, a new webinar series focused on providing nanotechnology information for K-12 teachers, and a searchable web portal on nano.gov of nanoscale science and engineering resources for teachers and professors.

Interestingly, May 20, 2015 is also the day the NNCO held its second webinar for small- and medium-size businesses in the nanotechnology community. You can find out more about that webinar and future ones by following the links in my May 13, 2015 posting.

Since the US White House announcement, OCSiAl has issued a May 26, 2015 news release which provides a brief history and more details about its newly expanded NanoComm program,

OCSiAl launched the iNanoComm, which stands for the Integrated Nanotube Commercialization Award, program in February 2015 to help researchers lower the cost of their most promising R&D projects dedicated to SWCNT [single-walled carbon nanotube] applications. The first round received 33 applications from 28 university groups, including The Smalley-Curl Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University and the Concordia Center for Composites at Concordia University [Canada] among others. [emphasis mine] The aim of iNanoComm is to stimulate universities and research organizations to develop innovative market products based on nano-augmented materials, also known as clean materials.

Now the program’s criteria are being broadened to enable greater private sector engagement in potential projects and the creation of partnerships in commercializing nanotechnology. The program will now support early stage commercialization efforts connected to university research in the form of start-ups, technology transfers, new businesses and university spinoffs to support the mass commercialization of SWCNT products and technologies.

The announcement of the program’s expansion took place at the 2015 Roundtable of the US NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA), the world’s first non-profit association focused on the commercialization of nanotechnologies. NanoBCA is dedicated to creating an environment that nurtures research and innovation in nanotechnology, promotes tech-transfer of nanotechnology from academia to industry, encourages private capital investments in nanotechnology companies, and helps its corporate members bring innovative nanotechnology products to market.

“Enhancing iNanoComm as a ‘start-up incubator’ is a concrete step in promoting single-wall carbon nanotube applications in the commercial world,” said Max Atanassov, CEO of OCSiAl USA. “It was the logical thing for us to do, now that high quality carbon nanotubes have become broadly available and are affordably priced to be used on a mass industrial scale.”

Vince Caprio, Executive Director of NanoBCA, added that “iNanoComm will make an important contribution to translating fundamental nanotechnology research into commercial products. By facilitating the formation of more start-ups, it will encourage more scientists to pursue their dreams and develop their ideas into commercially successful businesses.”

For more information on the program expansion and how it can reduce the cost of early stage research connected to university projects, visit the iNanoComm website at www.inanocomm.org or contact info@inanocomm.org.

h/t Azonano May 27, 2015 news item

I sing the body cyber: two projects funded by the US National Science Foundation

Points to anyone who recognized the reference to Walt Whitman’s poem, “I sing the body electric,” from his classic collection, Leaves of Grass (1867 edition; h/t Wikipedia entry). I wonder if the cyber physical systems (CPS) work being funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US will occasion poetry too.

More practically, a May 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, describes two cyber physical systems (CPS) research projects newly funded by the NSF,

Today [May 12, 2015] the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced two, five-year, center-scale awards totaling $8.75 million to advance the state-of-the-art in medical and cyber-physical systems (CPS).

One project will develop “Cyberheart”–a platform for virtual, patient-specific human heart models and associated device therapies that can be used to improve and accelerate medical-device development and testing. The other project will combine teams of microrobots with synthetic cells to perform functions that may one day lead to tissue and organ re-generation.

CPS are engineered systems that are built from, and depend upon, the seamless integration of computation and physical components. Often called the “Internet of Things,” CPS enable capabilities that go beyond the embedded systems of today.

“NSF has been a leader in supporting research in cyber-physical systems, which has provided a foundation for putting the ‘smart’ in health, transportation, energy and infrastructure systems,” said Jim Kurose, head of Computer & Information Science & Engineering at NSF. “We look forward to the results of these two new awards, which paint a new and compelling vision for what’s possible for smart health.”

Cyber-physical systems have the potential to benefit many sectors of our society, including healthcare. While advances in sensors and wearable devices have the capacity to improve aspects of medical care, from disease prevention to emergency response, and synthetic biology and robotics hold the promise of regenerating and maintaining the body in radical new ways, little is known about how advances in CPS can integrate these technologies to improve health outcomes.

These new NSF-funded projects will investigate two very different ways that CPS can be used in the biological and medical realms.

A May 12, 2015 NSF news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the two CPS projects,

Bio-CPS for engineering living cells

A team of leading computer scientists, roboticists and biologists from Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT have come together to develop a system that combines the capabilities of nano-scale robots with specially designed synthetic organisms. Together, they believe this hybrid “bio-CPS” will be capable of performing heretofore impossible functions, from microscopic assembly to cell sensing within the body.

“We bring together synthetic biology and micron-scale robotics to engineer the emergence of desired behaviors in populations of bacterial and mammalian cells,” said Calin Belta, a professor of mechanical engineering, systems engineering and bioinformatics at Boston University and principal investigator on the project. “This project will impact several application areas ranging from tissue engineering to drug development.”

The project builds on previous research by each team member in diverse disciplines and early proof-of-concept designs of bio-CPS. According to the team, the research is also driven by recent advances in the emerging field of synthetic biology, in particular the ability to rapidly incorporate new capabilities into simple cells. Researchers so far have not been able to control and coordinate the behavior of synthetic cells in isolation, but the introduction of microrobots that can be externally controlled may be transformative.

In this new project, the team will focus on bio-CPS with the ability to sense, transport and work together. As a demonstration of their idea, they will develop teams of synthetic cell/microrobot hybrids capable of constructing a complex, fabric-like surface.

Vijay Kumar (University of Pennsylvania), Ron Weiss (MIT), and Douglas Densmore (BU) are co-investigators of the project.

Medical-CPS and the ‘Cyberheart’

CPS such as wearable sensors and implantable devices are already being used to assess health, improve quality of life, provide cost-effective care and potentially speed up disease diagnosis and prevention. [emphasis mine]

Extending these efforts, researchers from seven leading universities and centers are working together to develop far more realistic cardiac and device models than currently exist. This so-called “Cyberheart” platform can be used to test and validate medical devices faster and at a far lower cost than existing methods. CyberHeart also can be used to design safe, patient-specific device therapies, thereby lowering the risk to the patient.

“Innovative ‘virtual’ design methodologies for implantable cardiac medical devices will speed device development and yield safer, more effective devices and device-based therapies, than is currently possible,” said Scott Smolka, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University and one of the principal investigators on the award.

The group’s approach combines patient-specific computational models of heart dynamics with advanced mathematical techniques for analyzing how these models interact with medical devices. The analytical techniques can be used to detect potential flaws in device behavior early on during the device-design phase, before animal and human trials begin. They also can be used in a clinical setting to optimize device settings on a patient-by-patient basis before devices are implanted.

“We believe that our coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach, which balances theoretical, experimental and practical concerns, will yield transformational results in medical-device design and foundations of cyber-physical system verification,” Smolka said.

The team will develop virtual device models which can be coupled together with virtual heart models to realize a full virtual development platform that can be subjected to computational analysis and simulation techniques. Moreover, they are working with experimentalists who will study the behavior of virtual and actual devices on animals’ hearts.

Co-investigators on the project include Edmund Clarke (Carnegie Mellon University), Elizabeth Cherry (Rochester Institute of Technology), W. Rance Cleaveland (University of Maryland), Flavio Fenton (Georgia Tech), Rahul Mangharam (University of Pennsylvania), Arnab Ray (Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering [Germany]) and James Glimm and Radu Grosu (Stony Brook University). Richard A. Gray of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is another key contributor.

It is fascinating to observe how terminology is shifting from pacemakers and deep brain stimulators as implants to “CPS such as wearable sensors and implantable devices … .” A new category has been created, CPS, which conjoins medical devices with other sensing devices such as wearable fitness monitors found in the consumer market. I imagine it’s an attempt to quell fears about injecting strange things into or adding strange things to your body—microrobots and nanorobots partially derived from synthetic biology research which are “… capable of performing heretofore impossible functions, from microscopic assembly to cell sensing within the body.” They’ve also sneaked in a reference to synthetic biology, an area of research where some concerns have been expressed, from my March 19, 2013 post about a poll and synthetic biology concerns,

In our latest survey, conducted in January 2013, three-fourths of respondents say they have heard little or nothing about synthetic biology, a level consistent with that measured in 2010. While initial impressions about the science are largely undefined, these feelings do not necessarily become more positive as respondents learn more. The public has mixed reactions to specific synthetic biology applications, and almost one-third of respondents favor a ban “on synthetic biology research until we better understand its implications and risks,” while 61 percent think the science should move forward.

I imagine that for scientists, 61% in favour of more research is not particularly comforting given how easily and quickly public opinion can shift.

Synthesizing nerve tissues with 3D printers and cellulose nanocrystals (CNC)

There are lots of stories about bioprinting and tissue engineering here and I think it’s time (again) for one which one has some good, detailed descriptions and, bonus, it features cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) and graphene. From a May 13, 2015 news item on Azonano,

The printer looks like a toaster oven with the front and sides removed. Its metal frame is built up around a stainless steel circle lit by an ultraviolet light. Stainless steel hydraulics and thin black tubes line the back edge, which lead to an inner, topside box made of red plastic.

In front, the metal is etched with the red Bio Bot logo. All together, the gray metal frame is small enough to fit on top of an old-fashioned school desk, but nothing about this 3D printer is old school. In fact, the tissue-printing machine is more like a sci-fi future in the flesh—and it has very real medical applications.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University hope to use this newly acquired 3D bioprinter to make synthesized nerve tissue. The key is developing the right “bioink” or printable tissue. The nanotechnology-inspired material could help regenerate damaged nerves for patients with spinal cord injuries, says Tolou Shokuhfar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at Michigan Tech.

Shokuhfar directs the In-Situ Nanomedicine and Nanoelectronics Laboratory at Michigan Tech, and she is an adjunct assistant professor in the Bioengineering Department and the College of Dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In the bioprinting research, Shokuhfar collaborates with Reza Shahbazian-Yassar, the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Tech. Shahbazian-Yassar’s highly interdisciplinary background on cellulose nanocrystals as biomaterials, funded by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Biomaterials Program, helped inspire the lab’s new 3D printing research. “Cellulose nanocrystals with extremely good mechanical properties are highly desirable for bioprinting of scaffolds that can be used for live tissues,” says Shahbazian-Yassar. [emphases mine]

A May 11, 2015 Michigan Technological University (MTU) news release by Allison Mills, which originated the news item, explains the ‘why’ of the research,

“We wanted to target a big issue,” Shokuhfar says, explaining that nerve regeneration is a particularly difficult biomedical engineering conundrum. “We are born with all the nerve cells we’ll ever have, and damaged nerves don’t heal very well.”

Other facilities are trying to address this issue as well. Many feature large, room-sized machines that have built-in cell culture hoods, incubators and refrigeration. The precision of this equipment allows them to print full organs. But innovation is more nimble at smaller scales.

“We can pursue nerve regeneration research with a simpler printer set-up,” says Shayan Shafiee, a PhD student working with Shokuhfar. He gestures to the small gray box across the lab bench.

He opens the red box under the top side of the printer’s box. Inside the plastic casing, a large syringe holds a red jelly-like fluid. Shafiee replenishes the needle-tipped printer, pulls up his laptop and, with a hydraulic whoosh, he starts to print a tissue scaffold.

The news release expands on the theme,

At his lab bench in the nanotechnology lab at Michigan Tech, Shafiee holds up a petri dish. Inside is what looks like a red gummy candy, about the size of a half-dollar.

Here’s a video from MTU illustrating the printing process,

Back to the news release, which notes graphene could be instrumental in this research,

“This is based on fractal geometry,” Shafiee explains, pointing out the small crenulations and holes pockmarking the jelly. “These are similar to our vertebrae—the idea is to let a nerve pass through the holes.”

Making the tissue compatible with nerve cells begins long before the printer starts up. Shafiee says the first step is to synthesize a biocompatible polymer that is syrupy—but not too thick—that can be printed. That means Shafiee and Shokuhfar have to create their own materials to print with; there is no Amazon.com or even a specialty shop for bioprinting nerves.

Nerves don’t just need a biocompatible tissue to act as a carrier for the cells. Nerve function is all about electric pulses. This is where Shokuhfar’s nanotechnology research comes in: Last year, she was awarded a CAREER grant from NSF for her work using graphene in biomaterials research. [emphasis mine] “Graphene is a wonder material,” she says. “And it has very good electrical conductivity properties.”

The team is extending the application of this material for nerve cell printing. “Our work always comes back to the question, is it printable or not?” Shafiee says, adding that a successful material—a biocompatible, graphene-bound polymer—may just melt, mush or flat out fail under the pressure of printing. After all, imagine building up a substance more delicate than a soufflé using only the point of a needle. And in the nanotechnology world, a needlepoint is big, even clumsy.

Shafiee and Shokuhfar see these issues as mechanical obstacles that can be overcome.

“It’s like other 3D printers, you need a design to work from,” Shafiee says, adding that he will tweak and hone the methodology for printing nerve cells throughout his dissertation work. He is also hopeful that the material will have use beyond nerve regeneration.

This looks like a news release designed to publicize work funded at MTU by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) which is why there is no mention of published work.

One final comment regarding cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). They have also been called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), which you will still see but it seems CNC is emerging as the generic term. NCC has been trademarked by CelluForce, a Canadian company researching and producing CNC (or if you prefer, NCC) from forest products.

Entangling thousands of atoms

Quantum entanglement as an idea seems extraordinary to me like something from of the fevered imagination made possible only with certain kinds of hallucinogens. I suppose you could call theoretical physicists who’ve conceptualized entanglement a different breed as they don’t seem to need chemical assistance for their flights of fancy, which turn out to be reality. Researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the University of Belgrade (Serbia) have entangled thousands of atoms with a single photon according to a March 26, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Physicists from MIT and the University of Belgrade have developed a new technique that can successfully entangle 3,000 atoms using only a single photon. The results, published today in the journal Nature, represent the largest number of particles that have ever been mutually entangled experimentally.

The researchers say the technique provides a realistic method to generate large ensembles of entangled atoms, which are key components for realizing more-precise atomic clocks.

“You can make the argument that a single photon cannot possibly change the state of 3,000 atoms, but this one photon does — it builds up correlations that you didn’t have before,” says Vladan Vuletic, the Lester Wolfe Professor in MIT’s Department of Physics, and the paper’s senior author. “We have basically opened up a new class of entangled states we can make, but there are many more new classes to be explored.”

A March 26, 2015 MIT news release by Jennifer Chu (also on EurekAlert but dated March 25, 2015), which originated the news item, describes entanglement with particular attention to how it relates to atomic timekeeping,

Entanglement is a curious phenomenon: As the theory goes, two or more particles may be correlated in such a way that any change to one will simultaneously change the other, no matter how far apart they may be. For instance, if one atom in an entangled pair were somehow made to spin clockwise, the other atom would instantly be known to spin counterclockwise, even though the two may be physically separated by thousands of miles.

The phenomenon of entanglement, which physicist Albert Einstein once famously dismissed as “spooky action at a distance,” is described not by the laws of classical physics, but by quantum mechanics, which explains the interactions of particles at the nanoscale. At such minuscule scales, particles such as atoms are known to behave differently from matter at the macroscale.

Scientists have been searching for ways to entangle not just pairs, but large numbers of atoms; such ensembles could be the basis for powerful quantum computers and more-precise atomic clocks. The latter is a motivation for Vuletic’s group.

Today’s best atomic clocks are based on the natural oscillations within a cloud of trapped atoms. As the atoms oscillate, they act as a pendulum, keeping steady time. A laser beam within the clock, directed through the cloud of atoms, can detect the atoms’ vibrations, which ultimately determine the length of a single second.

“Today’s clocks are really amazing,” Vuletic says. “They would be less than a minute off if they ran since the Big Bang — that’s the stability of the best clocks that exist today. We’re hoping to get even further.”

The accuracy of atomic clocks improves as more and more atoms oscillate in a cloud. Conventional atomic clocks’ precision is proportional to the square root of the number of atoms: For example, a clock with nine times more atoms would only be three times as accurate. If these same atoms were entangled, a clock’s precision could be directly proportional to the number of atoms — in this case, nine times as accurate. The larger the number of entangled particles, then, the better an atomic clock’s timekeeping.

It seems weak lasers make big entanglements possible (from the news release),

Scientists have so far been able to entangle large groups of atoms, although most attempts have only generated entanglement between pairs in a group. Only one team has successfully entangled 100 atoms — the largest mutual entanglement to date, and only a small fraction of the whole atomic ensemble.

Now Vuletic and his colleagues have successfully created a mutual entanglement among 3,000 atoms, virtually all the atoms in the ensemble, using very weak laser light — down to pulses containing a single photon. The weaker the light, the better, Vuletic says, as it is less likely to disrupt the cloud. “The system remains in a relatively clean quantum state,” he says.

The researchers first cooled a cloud of atoms, then trapped them in a laser trap, and sent a weak laser pulse through the cloud. They then set up a detector to look for a particular photon within the beam. Vuletic reasoned that if a photon has passed through the atom cloud without event, its polarization, or direction of oscillation, would remain the same. If, however, a photon has interacted with the atoms, its polarization rotates just slightly — a sign that it was affected by quantum “noise” in the ensemble of spinning atoms, with the noise being the difference in the number of atoms spinning clockwise and counterclockwise.

“Every now and then, we observe an outgoing photon whose electric field oscillates in a direction perpendicular to that of the incoming photons,” Vuletic says. “When we detect such a photon, we know that must have been caused by the atomic ensemble, and surprisingly enough, that detection generates a very strongly entangled state of the atoms.”

Vuletic and his colleagues are currently using the single-photon detection technique to build a state-of-the-art atomic clock that they hope will overcome what’s known as the “standard quantum limit” — a limit to how accurate measurements can be in quantum systems. Vuletic says the group’s current setup may be a step toward developing even more complex entangled states.

“This particular state can improve atomic clocks by a factor of two,” Vuletic says. “We’re striving toward making even more complicated states that can go further.”

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

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

Entanglement with negative Wigner function of almost 3,000 atoms heralded by one photon by Robert McConnell, Hao Zhang, Jiazhong Hu, Senka Ćuk & Vladan Vuletić. Nature 519 439–442 (26 March 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14293 Published online 25 March 2015

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

This image illustrates the entanglement of a large number of atoms. The atoms, shown in purple, are shown mutually entangled with one another. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT and Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

This image illustrates the entanglement of a large number of atoms. The atoms, shown in purple, are shown mutually entangled with one another.
Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT and Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT