Tag Archives: Sweden

Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants (part 2 of 2)

For some bizarre frosting on this disturbing cake (see part 1 of the Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants for the medical science aspects), a January 5, 2016 Vanity Fair article by Adam Ciralsky documents Macchiarini’s courtship of an NBC ([US] National Broadcasting Corporation) news producer who was preparing a documentary about him and his work,

Macchiarini, 57, is a magnet for superlatives. He is commonly referred to as “world-renowned” and a “super-surgeon.” He is credited with medical miracles, including the world’s first synthetic organ transplant, which involved fashioning a trachea, or windpipe, out of plastic and then coating it with a patient’s own stem cells. That feat, in 2011, appeared to solve two of medicine’s more intractable problems—organ rejection and the lack of donor organs—and brought with it major media exposure for Macchiarini and his employer, Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, home of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Macchiarini was now planning another first: a synthetic-trachea transplant on a child, a two-year-old Korean-Canadian girl named Hannah Warren, who had spent her entire life in a Seoul hospital. …

Macchiarini had come to Vieira’s [Meredith Vieira, American journalist] attention in September 2012, when she read a front-page New York Times story about the doctor. She turned to [Benita] Alexander, one of her most seasoned and levelheaded producers, to look into a regenerative-medicine story for television.

When Alexander and Macchiarini found themselves together in Illinois for a period of weeks in the spring of 2013—brought there by the NBC special—they met frequently for quiet dinners. The trachea transplant on Hannah Warren, the Korean-Canadian girl, was being performed at Children’s Hospital of Illinois, in Peoria, and the procedure was fraught with risks, not least because Macchiarini’s technique was still a work in progress even for adults. (Christopher Lyles, an American who became the second person to receive an artificial trachea, died less than four months after his surgery at Karolinska.) “He’s a brilliant scientist and a great technical surgeon,” said Dr. Richard Pearl, who operated alongside Macchiarini in Illinois. Like others, Pearl described his Italian colleague as a Renaissance man, fluent in half a dozen languages. Another person, who would get to know him through Alexander, compared Macchiarini to “the Most Interesting Man in the World,” the character made famous in Dos Equis beer commercials.

In Peoria, Macchiarini’s medical magic appeared to have its limitations. Hannah Warren died from post-surgical complications less than three months after the transplant. Her anatomy “was much more challenging than we realized,” Pearl recounted. “Scientifically, the operation itself worked. It was just a shame what happened. When you’re doing something for the first time, you don’t have a textbook. It was the hardest operation I’ve ever scrubbed on.”

Then, there was the romance (from the Ciralsky article),

The personal relationship between Alexander and Macchiarini continued to blossom. In June 2013, they flew to Venice for what Alexander called “an incredibly romantic weekend.” Macchiarini bought her red roses and Venetian-glass earrings and took her on a gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs. Like a pair of teenagers, they attached love locks to the Ponte dell’Accademia bridge, one of them bearing the inscription “B—P 23/6/13, 4 Ever.” Alexander told me that, “when he took me to Venice, we were still shooting the story … He always paid for everything … gifts, expensive dinners, flowers—the works. When it came to money, he was incredibly generous.”

It is a bedrock principle at NBC and every other news organization that journalists must avoid conflicts of interest, real or apparent. Alexander was not oblivious to this. “I knew that I was crossing the line in the sense that it’s a basic and well-understood rule of journalism that you don’t become involved with one of the subjects of your story, because your objectivity could clearly become compromised,” she told me. “I never once thought about him paying for the trip as him ‘buying’ me in some fashion, or potentially using money to influence me, because, from my perspective anyway … that just wasn’t the case. We were just crazy about each other, and I was falling in love.”

Alexander made her way to Stockholm at a later date (from the Ciralsky article),

Macchiarini was in Stockholm to attend to Yesim Cetir, a 25-year-old Turkish woman whose artificial trachea had failed. As Swedish television later reported, “It has taken nearly 100 surgeries to support the cell tissue around the airpipes. Her breathing is bad, and to avoid suffocation, her respiratory tract must be cleansed from mucus every fourth hour. She has now been lying in the hospital for nearly 1,000 days.” NBC’s special would come to include skeptical commentary from Dr. Joseph Vacanti, who questioned the sufficiency of Macchiarini’s research, but Cetir’s post-operative complications were not mentioned.

Prior to the NBC documentary’s (A Leap of Faith) airing, the romance became an engagement (from the Ciralsky article),

Macchiarini proposed to Benita Alexander on Christmas Day 2013, Alexander said. In the months leading up to the airing of A Leap of Faith, in June 2014, Macchiarini and Alexander went on trips to the Bahamas, Turkey, Mexico, Greece, and Italy. They went on shopping sprees and ate their way through Michelin-starred restaurants. Macchiarini even took Alexander and her daughter to meet his mother at her home, in Lucca. “She cooked homemade gnocchi,” Alexander recalled. Macchiarini’s mother shared pictures from the family photo album while her son translated. Emanuela Pecchia, the woman whom Macchiarini had married years earlier, lived only a short distance away. When Macchiarini informed Alexander, during a dinner cruise later that summer, that his divorce had finally come through, she recounted, he gave her an engagement ring.

In the months that followed, the doctor and his fiancée began planning their wedding in earnest. They set a date for July 11, 2015, in Rome. But their desire to marry in the Catholic Church was complicated by the fact that she is Episcopalian and divorced. Divorce would have been an issue for Macchiarini as well. However, Alexander said, Macchiarini insisted that he would fix things by visiting his friend and patient in the Vatican.

In October 2014, Alexander recalled, Macchiarini told her that he had met with Pope Francis for four hours and that the Pontiff consented to the couple’s marriage and, in yet another sign of his progressive tenure, vowed to officiate. Alexander said Macchiarini referred to himself as Pope Francis’s “personal doctor” and maintained that in subsequent meetings his patient offered to host the wedding at his summer residence, the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo.

Shortly after quitting her job in anticipation of her July 2015 wedding to Macchiarini, Alexander learned that Pope Francis who was supposed to officiate was in fact scheduled to be in South America during that time.  From the Ciralsky article,

As Alexander would discover with the help of a private investigator named Frank Murphy, virtually every detail Macchiarini provided about the wedding was false. A review of public records in Italy would also seem to indicate that Macchiarini remains married to Emanuela Pecchia, his wife of nearly 30 years. Murphy, who spent 15 years as a Pennsylvania State Police detective, told me, “I’ve never in my experience witnessed a fraud like this, with this level of international flair…. The fact that he could keep all the details straight and compartmentalize these different lives and lies is really amazing.

Ciralsky broaches the question of why someone with Macchiarini’s accomplishments would jeopardize his position in such a way,

To understand why someone of considerable stature could construct such elaborate tales and how he could seemingly make others believe them, I turned to Dr. Ronald Schouten, a Harvard professor who directs the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We’re taught from an early age that when something is too good to be true, it’s not true,” he said. “And yet we ignore the signals. People’s critical judgment gets suspended. In this case, that happened at both the personal and institutional level.” Though he will not diagnose from a distance, Schouten, who is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on psychopathy, observed, “Macchiarini is the extreme form of a con man. He’s clearly bright and has accomplishments, but he can’t contain himself. There’s a void in his personality that he seems to want to fill by conning more and more people.” When I asked how Macchiarini stacks up to, say, Bernie Madoff, he laughed and said, “Madoff was an ordinary con man with a Ponzi scheme. He never claimed to be the chairman of the Federal Reserve. He didn’t suggest he was part of a secret international society of bankers. This guy is really good.”

In addition to the romance, Ciralsky and Vanity Fair checked out Macchiarini’s résumé,

Vanity Fair contacted many of the schools at which Macchiarini claimed to have either earned a degree or held an academic post. While the University of Pisa confirmed that he indeed received an M.D. and had specialized in surgery, the University of Alabama at Birmingham denied that Macchiarini earned a master’s in biostatistics or that he participated in a two-year fellowship in thoracic surgery. In fact, according to U.A.B. spokesman Bob Shepard, the only record the school has for Macchiarini indicates that he did a six-month non-surgical fellowship in hematology/oncology—which according to the current Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education guidelines is 30 months shy of what is required for a clinical fellowship in that field. The University of Paris—Sud never responded to repeated requests for comment, but Hannover Medical School wrote to say that Macchiarini had been neither a full nor an associate professor there, merely an adjunct.

Comments

As I noted in part 1, there are medical science and ethical issues to be considered. As well, Macchiarini’s romantic behaviour certainly seems fraudulent as do parts of his curriculum vitae (CV) and there’s more about Macchiarini’s professional accomplishments (read Ciralsky’s entire January 5, 2016 Vanity Fair article for details).

The romantic and CV chicanery may or may not suggest serious problems with Macchiarini’s revolutionary procedure and ethics. History is littered with stories of people who achieved extraordinary advances and were not the most exemplary human beings. Paracelsus, founder of the field of toxicology and an important contributor in the fields of medicine and science, was reputedly a sketchy character. Caravaggio now remembered for his art, killed someone (accidentally or not) and was known for his violent behaviour even in a time when there was higher tolerance for it.

What I’m saying is that Macchiarini may be pioneering something important regardless of how you view his romantic chicanery and falsified CV. Medical research can be high risk and there is no way to avoid that sad fact. However, criticisms of the work from Macchiarini’s colleagues need to be addressed and the charge that a Russian patient who was not in imminent danger and not properly advised of the extremely high risk must also be addressed.

It should also be remembered that Macchiarini did not pull this off by himself. Institutions such as the Karolinska Institute failed to respond appropriately in the initial stages. As well, the venerable medical journal, The Lancet seems reluctant to address the situation even now.

Before dissecting the Alexander situation, it should be said that she showed courage in admitting her professional transgression and discussing a painful and humiliating romantic failure. All of us are capable of misjudgments and wishful thinking, unfortunately for her, this became an international affair.

More critically, Alexander, a journalist, set aside her ethics for a romance and what seems to be surprisingly poor research by Alexander’s team.  (Even I had a little something about this in 2013.) How did a crack NBC research team miss the problems? (For the curious, this Bryan Burrough April 30, 2015 article for Vanity Fair highlighting scandals plaguing NBC News may help to answer the question about NBC research.)

Finally, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on stem cell scientists due to the amounts of money and the degree of prestige involved. Ciralsky’s story notes the pressure when he describes how Macchiarini got one of this positions at an Italian facility in Florence through political machinations. (The situation is a little more complicated than I’ve described here but an accommodation in Macchiarini’s favour was made.) Laura Margottini’s Oct. 7, 2014 article for Science magazine provides a synopsis of another stem cell controversy in Italy.

Stem cell controversies have not been confined to Italy or Europe for that matter. There was the South Korean scandal in 2006 (see a Sept. 19, 2011 BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] news online post for an update and synopsis) when a respected scientist was found to have falsified research results. Up to that  point, South Korea was considered the world leader in the field.

Finally,  if there are two survivors, is there a possibility that this procedure could be made successful for more patients or that some patients are better candidates than others?

Additional notes

Macchiarini is mounting a defence for himself according to a March 30, 2016 news item on phys.org and a Swedish survey indicates that the average Swede’s trust in researchers still remains high despite the Macchiarini imbroglio according to an April 15, 2016 news item on phys.org.

For anyone interested in the timeline and updates for this scandal, Retraction Watch offers this: http://retractionwatch.com/2016/02/12/reading-about-embattled-trachea-surgeon-paolo-macchiarini-heres-what-you-need-to-know/

Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants (part 1 of 2)

Having featured Paolo Macchiarini and his work on transplanting synthetic tracheas into humans when it was lauded (in an Aug. 2, 2011 post titled: Body parts nanostyle), it seems obligatory to provide an update now that he and his work are under a very large cloud. Some of this is not new, there were indications as early as this Dec. 27, 2013 post titled: Trachea transplants: an update which featured an article by Gretchen Vogel in Science magazine hinting at problems.

Now, a Feb. 4, 2016 article by Gretchen Vogel for Science magazine provides a more current update and opens with this (Note: Links have been removed),

The Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm “has lost its confidence” in surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, a senior researcher at the institute, and will end its ties with him. In a statement issued today, KI said that it won’t renew Macchiarini’s contract after it expires on 30 November 2016.

The move comes in the wake of a chilling three-part TV documentary about Macchiarini, a former media darling who was cleared of scientific misconduct charges by KI vice-chancellor Anders Hamsten last summer. Among other things, The Experiments, broadcast in January by Swedish public television channel SVT, suggests that Macchiarini didn’t fully inform his patients about the risks of his pioneering trachea implants. Most of the patients died, including at least one—a woman treated in Krasnodar, Russia—who was not seriously ill before the surgery.

For a profession that has “do no harm” as one of its universal tenets, the hint that a patient not in dire need agreed to a very risky procedure without being properly apprised of the risks is chilling.

Macchiarini’s behavriour is not the only concern, the Karolinska Institute is also being held to account (from the Vogel article),

The film has also raised questions about the way Hamsten and other administrators at KI, Sweden’s most prestigious university and home of the selection committee for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, have handled the scandal. Today [Feb. 4, 2016], the Institute’s Board decided to launch an independent review, to be led by an experienced lawyer, into KI’s 5-year relationship with Macchiarini. Among the things the inquiry should address is whether any errors were made or laws were broken when Macchiarini was hired; whether misconduct charges against him were handled properly; and why, given the controversy, he was given a new 1-year contract  as a senior researcher after his appointment as a visiting professor at KI ended in October 2015.

Getting back to Macchiarini (from the Vogel article),

In 2014, colleagues at KI alleged that Macchiarini’s papers made his transplants seem more successful than they were, omitting serious complications. Two patients treated at Karolinska died, and a third has been in intensive care since receiving a trachea in 2012. The Illinois patient also died, as did three patients in Russia. Bengt Gerdin, a professor emeritus of surgery at Uppsala University in Sweden who investigated the charges at KI’s request, concluded in May 2015 that differences between published papers and lab records constituted scientific misconduct. But Hamsten rejected that conclusion in August, based on additional material Macchiarini submitted later.

The documentary shows footage of a patient who says Macchiarini reassured him before the surgery that experiments had been done on pigs, when in fact none had taken place. It also follows the wrenching story of the first patient in Krasnodar. A 33-year-old woman, she was living with a tracheostomy that she said caused her pain, but her condition was not life-threatening. The film suggests that she wasn’t fully aware of the risks of the operation, and that Macchiarini and his colleagues knew about problems with the implant before the surgery. The patient’s first implant failed, and she received a second one in 2013. She died in 2014.

So in May 2015, an investigator concluded there had been scientific misconduct and, yet, Macchiarini’s contract is renewed in the fall of 2015.

Kerry Grens in a March 7, 2016 article for The Scientist provides information about the consequences of the latest investigation into Macchiarini’s work (Note: Links have been removed),

Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, a surgeon at the Karolinska Institute and one of a number of colleagues who voiced concerns about the conduct of fellow surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, is no longer a coauthor on a 2011 The Lancet study led by Macchiarini that described an artificial windpipe. Grinnemo asked to be removed from the paper, and the journal complied last week (March 3).

Grinnemo’s removal from the study is the latest in a string of repercussions related to an investigation of Macchiarini’s work. Last month, the head of the Karolinska Institute, Anders Hamsten, resigned because the institution’s initial investigation concluded no wrongdoing. Hamsten said he and his colleagues were probably wrong about Macchiarini; the institute has launched another investigation into the surgeon’s work.

A March 23, 2016 news item on phys.org announces Macchiarini’s firing from the Karolinska Institute and provides a brief description of his work with synthetic tracheas (Note: A link has been removed),

Sweden’s Karolinska Institute (KI), which awards the Nobel Prize for Medicine, on Wednesday [March 23, 2016] dismissed a Italian transplant surgeon suspected of research fraud and ethical breaches, in an affair that has plunged the renowned institution into crisis.

“It is impossible for KI to continue to have any cooperation with Paolo Macchiarini. He has acted in a way that has had very tragic consequences for the people affected and their families. His conduct has seriously damaged confidence in KI,” human resource director Mats Engelbrektson said in a statement.

Macchiarini, a 57-year-old visiting professor at Karolinska since 2010, rose to fame for carrying out the first synthetic trachea, or windpipe, transplant in 2011.

It was a plastic structure seeded with the patient’s own stem cells—immature cells that grow into specialised cells of the body’s organs.

The surgeon performed three such operations in Stockholm and five others around the world, and the exploit was initially hailed as a game-changer for transplant medicine.

But six of the eight patients reportedly died, and allegations ensued that the risky procedure had been carried out on at least one individual who had not been life-threateningly ill.

Macchiarini is also suspected of lying about his scientific research and his past experience with prestigious medical research centres.

“Paolo Macchiarini supplied false or misleading information in the CV he submitted to KI” and “demonstrated scientific negligence” in his research, said the institute.

H/t to Don Bright, a reader who informed me about this April 2, 2016 posting by Pierre Delaere (a long time Macchiarini critic), published in Leonid Schneider’s blog, For Better Science,

I have written this overview as a trachea surgeon working at KU Leuven and privileged witness of the “Tracheal regeneration scandal” from the very start.

Because of its immense scale, the scandal is difficult to grasp and explain. Fortunately, we have recently been provided with an excellent overview in the 3 x 1-hour documentary by Bosse Lindquist on Swedish national TV. Due to Paolo Macchiarini’s appetite for the spotlights and thanks to the professional standards of the Swedish top producer this is probably the very first case of a medical crime played out in the media. Anyone who has seen this brilliant investigative documentary cannot help but wonder why there are still people who doubt that this is a case of gross medical misconduct.

The story began in Barcelona in 2008 with the publication in The Lancet of a report on a regenerated windpipe, featuring Paolo Macchiarini (PM) as its first author (Macchiarini et al. Lancet 2008). This ground-breaking achievement consisted of bringing to life a dead windpipe from a donor, by putting it in a plastic box, a so-called ‘bioreactor’ together with bone marrow fluid (stem cells). A few weeks later, I wrote a letter to The Lancet, pointing out:

    “The main drawback of the proposed reconstruction is the lack of an intrinsic blood supply to the trachea. We know that a good blood supply is the first requirement in all other tissue and organ transplantations. Therefore, the reported success of this technique is questionable” (correspondence by Delaere and Hermans, Lancet 2009).

Delaere goes on to recount and critique the story of the first synthetic trachea,

…  PM had mounted bone marrow extract (‘stem cells’) on a plastic tube (‘bioartificial trachea’) in a plastic box (‘bioreactor’). After a day or two this creation was ‘successfully’ transplanted in a patient with a trachea defect. This occurred in the Karolinska hospital in July 2011 and was reported on in The Lancet shortly afterwards . Biologically speaking, the procedure is absolutely implausible.

In reality an important part of the windpipe had been replaced by a synthetic tube, and the presence of stem cells made no difference to this whatsoever.

For those not in the field, this procedure may still seem acceptable. A blood vessel can also be replaced by synthetic material because the material can grow into the sterile environment of the blood stream. However, this is completely impossible if the synthetic material is exposed to an environment of inhaled air full of bacteria. The laws of biology allow us to predict accurately what will happen after part of the windpipe has been replaced by a synthetic tube. After some time, the suturing between the synthetic tube and the surrounding tissue will come loose, leading to a number of serious complications. These complications inevitably lead to death in the short (months) or in the mid-long term (a few years). How long the patient will survive also depends on the options still left to treat complications. In most cases so far, a metal stent had to be implanted to keep the airway open in the sutured area.It is entirely predictable that additional complications after placement of the metal stent will ultimately lead to the patient’s death, usually by asphyxiation or by bleeding out after complete rupture of the sutures. This gruesome fate awaiting patients was clearly shown in the documentary. Replacing a part of the trachea by a synthetic tube can therefore be compared to death by medical torture. The amount of suffering it induces is directly proportional to the duration between implantation and the patient’s death.

Delaere describes his own and others’ efforts to bring these issues to light,

Since 2011, I have contacted both the President of KI and the Editors of The Lancet with well-documented information to clarify that what had happened was completely unacceptable. These alerts were repeated in 2013 and 2014. Since 2014, four doctors from KI, who had seen it all happen, have been collecting evidence to show the extent of misconduct [Matthias Corbascio, Thomas Fux, Karl-Henrik Grinnemo and Oscar Simonsson, their letter to Vice-Chancellor Hamsten from June 22, 2015, and its attachments available here; -LS]. Not only did KI not react to the doctors’ complaint, these doctors were in fact intimidated and threatened with dismissal. KI’s Ethical Commission came to a verdict of ‘no misconduct’ in April 2015 following an inquiry based on a series of complaints filed by myself [verdict available from SVT here, -LS]. The Lancet Editor did not even bother to reply to my complaints.

In the reports, eight patients were given synthetic tracheas with six now dead and, allegedly, two still living. Delaere comments,

… To prove that this transplantation technique is effective, reports about the long-term success of this technique in the first 2 patients in Barcelona and London is still being spread. What the real situation of the two patients is at the moment is very difficult to establish. For some time now, reports about these two cases seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. After the air has been cleared in Sweden, the same will probably happen in London and Barcelona.

Comments

Sometimes medical research can be very dangerous. While, a 25% chance of success (two of Macchiarini’s eight patients undergoing the synthetic trachea transplant have allegedly survived) is not encouraging, it’s understandable that people in dire circumstances and with no other options might want to take a chance.

It’s troubling that the woman in Russia was not in dire straights and that she may not have known how dangerous the procedure is. It would have been unethical of Macchiarini to knowingly perform the procedure under those circumstances.

I am wrestling with some questions about the composite used to create the synthetic trachea and the surviving patients. My understanding is that the composite was designed for eventual deterioration as the patient’s own harvested stem cells fully formed the trachea. Whether the trachea is the one I imagined or he plastic one described by Delaere, how did two patients survive and what is their condition now? The first patient Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene in 2011 had apparently completed his PhD studies by 2013 (my Dec. 27, 2013 posting). Assuming Beyene is one of the two survivors, what has happened to him and the other one?

As for Delaere’s comments, he certainly raises some red flags not only regarding the procedure but the behaviour of the Lancet editorial team and the Karolinska Institute (they seem to be addressing the issues by firing Macchiarini and with the  resignations of the staff and board).

There are two more twists to this story, which carries on in part 2.

With over 150 partners from over 20 countries, the European Union’s Graphene Flagship research initiative unveils its work package devoted to biomedical technologies

An April 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the Graphene Flagship’s latest work package,

With a budget of €1 billion, the Graphene Flagship represents a new form of joint, coordinated research on an unprecedented scale, forming Europe’s biggest ever research initiative. It was launched in 2013 to bring together academic and industrial researchers to take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society in the timeframe of 10 years. The initiative currently involves over 150 partners from more than 20 European countries. The Graphene Flagship, coordinated by Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), is implemented around 15 scientific Work Packages on specific science and technology topics, such as fundamental science, materials, health and environment, energy, sensors, flexible electronics and spintronics.

Today [April 11, 2016], the Graphene Flagship announced in Barcelona the creation of a new Work Package devoted to Biomedical Technologies, one emerging application area for graphene and other 2D materials. This initiative is led by Professor Kostas Kostarelos, from the University of Manchester (United Kingdom), and ICREA Professor Jose Antonio Garrido, from the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2, Spain). The Kick-off event, held in the Casa Convalescència of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), is co-organised by ICN2 (ICREA Prof Jose Antonio Garrido), Centro Nacional de Microelectrónica (CNM-IMB-CSIC, CIBER-BBN; CSIC Tenured Scientist Dr Rosa Villa), and Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS; ICREA Prof Mavi Sánchez-Vives).

An April 11, 2016 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the Biomedical Technologies work package and other work packages,

The new Work Package will focus on the development of implants based on graphene and 2D-materials that have therapeutic functionalities for specific clinical outcomes, in disciplines such as neurology, ophthalmology and surgery. It will include research in three main areas: Materials Engineering; Implant Technology & Engineering; and Functionality and Therapeutic Efficacy. The objective is to explore novel implants with therapeutic capacity that will be further developed in the next phases of the Graphene Flagship.

The Materials Engineering area will be devoted to the production, characterisation, chemical modification and optimisation of graphene materials that will be adopted for the design of implants and therapeutic element technologies. Its results will be applied by the Implant Technology and Engineering area on the design of implant technologies. Several teams will work in parallel on retinal, cortical, and deep brain implants, as well as devices to be applied in the periphery nerve system. Finally, The Functionality and Therapeutic Efficacy area activities will centre on development of devices that, in addition to interfacing the nerve system for recording and stimulation of electrical activity, also have therapeutic functionality.

Stimulation therapies will focus on the adoption of graphene materials in implants with stimulation capabilities in Parkinson’s, blindness and epilepsy disease models. On the other hand, biological therapies will focus on the development of graphene materials as transport devices of biological molecules (nucleic acids, protein fragments, peptides) for modulation of neurophysiological processes. Both approaches involve a transversal innovation environment that brings together the efforts of different Work Packages within the Graphene Flagship.

A leading role for Barcelona in Graphene and 2D-Materials

The kick-off meeting of the new Graphene Flagship Work Package takes place in Barcelona because of the strong involvement of local institutions and the high international profile of Catalonia in 2D-materials and biomedical research. Institutions such as the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) develop frontier research in a supportive environment which attracts talented researchers from abroad, such as ICREA Research Prof Jose Antonio Garrido, Group Leader of the ICN2 Advanced Electronic Materials and Devices Group and now also Deputy Leader of the Biomedical Technologies Work Package. Until summer 2015 he was leading a research group at the Technische Universität München (Germany).

Further Graphene Flagship events in Barcelona are planned; in May 2016 ICN2 will also host a meeting of the Spintronics Work Package. ICREA Prof Stephan Roche, Group Leader of the ICN2 Theoretical and Computational Nanoscience Group, is the deputy leader of this Work Package led by Prof Bart van Wees, from the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). Another Work Package, on optoelectronics, is led by Prof Frank Koppens from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO, Spain), with Prof Andrea Ferrari from the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) as deputy. Thus a number of prominent research institutes in Barcelona are deeply involved in the coordination of this European research initiative.

Kostas Kostarelos, the leader of the Biomedical Technologies Graphene Flagship work package, has been mentioned here before in the context of his blog posts for The Guardian science blog network (see my Aug. 7, 2014 post for a link to his post on metaphors used in medicine).

When based on plastic materials, contemporary art can degrade quickly

There’s an intriguing April 1, 2016 article by Josh Fischman for Scientific American about a problem with artworks from the 20th century and later—plastic-based materials (Note: A link has been removed),

Conservators at museums and art galleries have a big worry. They believe there is a good chance the art they showcase now will not be fit to be seen in one hundred years, according to researchers in a project  called Nanorestart. Why? After 1940, artists began using plastic-based material that was a far cry from the oil-based paints used by classical painters. Plastic is also far more fragile, it turns out. Its chemical bonds readily break. And they cannot be restored using techniques historically relied upon by conservators.

So art conservation scientists have turned to nanotechnology for help.

Sadly, there isn’t any detail in Fischman’s article about how nanotechnology is playing or might play a role in this conservation effort. Further investigation into the two projects (NanoRestART and POPART) mentioned by Fischman didn’t provide much more detail about NanoRestART’s science aspect but POPART does provide some details.

NanoRestART

It’s probably too soon (this project isn’t even a year-old) to be getting much in the way of the nanoscience details but NanoRestART has big plans according to its website homepage,

The conservation of this diverse cultural heritage requires advanced solutions at the cutting edge of modern chemistry and material science in an entirely new scientific framework that will be developed within NANORESTART project.

The NANORESTART project will focus on the synthesis of novel poly-functional nanomaterials and on the development of highly innovative restoration techniques to address the conservation of a wide variety of materials mainly used by modern and contemporary artists.

In NANORESTART, enterprises and academic centers of excellence in the field of synthesis and characterization of nano- and advanced materials have joined forces with complementary conservation institutions and freelance restorers. This multidisciplinary approach will cover the development of different materials in response to real conservation needs, the testing of such materials, the assessment of their environmental impact, and their industrial scalability.

NanoRestART’s (NANOmaterials for the REStoration of works of ART) project page spells out their goals in the order in which they are being approached,

The ground-breaking nature of our research can be more easily outlined by focussing on specific issues. The main conservation challenges that will be addressed in the project are:

 

Conservation challenge 1Cleaning of contemporary painted and plastic surfaces (CC1)

Conservation challenge 2Stabilization of canvases and painted layers in contemporary art (CC2)

Conservation challenge 3Removal of unwanted modern materials (CC3)

Conservation challenge 4Enhanced protection of artworks in museums and outdoors (CC4)

The European Commission provides more information about the project on its CORDIS website’s NanoRestART webpage including the start and end dates for the project and the consortium members,

From 2015-06-01 to 2018-12-01, ongoing project

CHALMERS TEKNISKA HOEGSKOLA AB
Sweden
MIRABILE ANTONIO
France
NATIONALMUSEET
Denmark
CONSIGLIO NAZIONALE DELLE RICERCHE
Italy
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK, NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF IRELAND, CORK
Ireland
MBN NANOMATERIALIA SPA
Italy
KEMIJSKI INSTITUT
Slovenia
CHEVALIER AURELIA
France
UNIVERSIDADE FEDERAL DO RIO GRANDE DO SUL
Brazil
UNIVERSITA CA’ FOSCARI VENEZIA
Italy
AKZO NOBEL PULP AND PERFORMANCE CHEMICALS AB
Sweden
COMMISSARIAT A L ENERGIE ATOMIQUE ET AUX ENERGIES ALTERNATIVES
France
ARKEMA FRANCE SA
France
UNIVERSIDAD DE SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
Spain
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON
United Kingdom
ZFB ZENTRUM FUR BUCHERHALTUNG GMBH
Germany
UNIVERSITAT DE BARCELONA
Spain
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE TATE GALLERY
United Kingdom
ASSOCIAZIONE ITALIANA PER LA RICERCA INDUSTRIALE – AIRI
Italy
THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
United States
MINISTERIO DE EDUCACION, CULTURA Y DEPORTE
Spain
STICHTING HET RIJKSMUSEUM
Netherlands
UNIVERSITEIT VAN AMSTERDAM
Netherlands
UNIVERSIDADE FEDERAL DO RIO DE JANEIRO
Brazil
ACCADEMIA DI BELLE ARTI DI BRERA
Italy

It was a bit surprising to see Brazil and the US as participants but The Art Institute of Chicago has done nanotechnology-enabled conservation in the past as per my March 24, 2014 posting about a Renoir painting. I’m not familiar with the Brazilian organization.

POPART

POPART (Preservation of Plastic Artefacts in museum collections) mentioned by Fischman was a European Commission project which ran from 2008 – 2012. Reports can be found on the CORDIS Popart webpage. The final report has some interesting bits (Note: I have added subheads in the [] square brackets),

To achieve a valid comparison of the various invasive and non-invasive techniques proposed for the identification and characterisation of plastics, a sample collection (SamCo) of plastics artefacts of about 100 standard and reference plastic objects was gathered. SamCo was made up of two kinds of reference materials: standards and objects. Each standard represents the reference material of a ‘pure’ plastic; while each object represents the reference of the same plastic as in the standards, but compounded with pigments, dyestuffs, fillers, anti oxidants, plasticizers etc.  Three partners ICN [Instituut Collectie Nederland], V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum] and Natmus [National Museet] collected different natural and synthetic plastics from the ICN reference collections of plastic objects, from flea markets, antique shops and from private collections and from their own collection to contribute to SamCo, the sample collection for identification by POPART partners. …

As a successive step, the collections of the following museums were surveyed:

-Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London, U.K.
-Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
-Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporaine (MAMAC) Nice, France
-Musée d’Art moderne, St. Etienne, France
-Musée Galliera, Paris, France

At the V&A approximately 200 objects were surveyed. Good or fair conservation conditions were found for about 85% of the objects, whereas the remaining 15% was in poor or even in unacceptable (3%) conditions. In particular, crazing and delamination of polyurethane faux leather and surface stickiness and darkening of plasticized PVC were observed. The situation at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was particularly favourable because a previous survey had been done in 1995 so that it was possible to make a comparison with the Popart survey in 2010. A total number of 40 objects, which comprised plastics early dating from the 1930’s until the newer plastics from the 1980’s, were considered and their actual conservation state compared with the 1995 records. Of the objects surveyed in 2010, it can be concluded that 21 remained in the same condition. 13 objects containing PA, PUR, PVC, PP or natural rubber changed due to chemical and physical degradation while works of art containing either PMMA or PS changed due to mechanical damages and incorrect artist’s technique (inappropriate adhesive) into a lesser condition. 6 works of art (containing either PA or PMMA or both) changed into a better condition due to restoration or replacements.  More than 230 objects have been examined in the 3 museums in France. A particular effort was devoted to the identification of the constituting plastics materials. Surveys have been undertaken without any sophisticated equipment, in order to work in museums everyday conditions. Plastics hidden by other materials or by paint layers were not or hardly accessible, it is why the final count of some plastics may be under estimated in the final results. Another outcome is that plastic identification has been made at a general level only, by trying to identify the polymer family each plastic belongs to. Lastly, evidence of chemical degradation processes that do not cause visible or perceptible damage have not been detected and could not be taken in account in the final results.

… The most damaged artefacts resulted constituted by cellulose acetate, cellulose nitrate and PVC.

[Polly (the doll)]

One of the main issues that is of interest for conservators and curators is to assess which kinds of plastics are most vulnerable to deterioration and to what extent they can deteriorate under the environmental conditions normally encountered in museums. Although one might expect that real time deterioration could be ascertained by a careful investigation of museum objects on display or in storage, real objects or artworks may not sampled due to ethical considerations. Therefore, reference objects were prepared by Natmus in the form of a doll (Polly) for simultaneous exposures in different environmental conditions. The doll comprised of 11 different plastics representative of types typically found in modern museum collections. The 16 identical dolls realized were exposed in different places, not only in normal exhibit conditions, but also in some selected extreme conditions to ascertain possible acceleration of the deterioration process. In most cases the environmental parameters were also measured. The dolls were periodically evaluated by visual inspection and in selected cases by instrumental analyses. 

In conclusion the experimental campaign carried out with Polly dolls can be viewed as a pilot study aimed at tackling the practical issues related to the monitoring of real three dimensional plastic artworks and the surrounding environment.

The overall exposure period (one year and half) was sufficient to observe initial changes in the more susceptible polymers, such as polyurethane ethers and esters, and polyamide, with detectable chromatic changes and surface effects. Conversely the other polymers were shown to be stable in the same conditions over this time period.

[Polly as an awareness raising tool]

Last but not least, the educational and communication benefits of an object like Polly facilitated the dissemination of the Popart Project to the public, and increased the awareness of issues associated with plastics in museum collections.

[Cleaning issues]

Mechanical cleaning has long been perceived as the least damaging technique to remove soiling from plastics. The results obtained from POPART suggest that the risks of introducing scratches or residues by mechanical cleaning are measurable. Some plastics were clearly more sensitive to mechanical damage than others. From the model plastics evaluated, HIPS was the most sensitive followed by HDPE, PVC, PMMA and CA. Scratches could not be measured on XPS due to its inhomogeneous surfaces. Plasticised PVC scratched easily, but appeared to repair itself because plasticiser migrated to surfaces and filled scratches.

Photo micrographs revealed that although all 22 cleaning materials evaluated in POPART scratched test plastics, some scratches were sufficiently shallow to be invisible to the naked eye. Duzzit and Scotch Brite sponges as well as all paper based products caused more scratching of surfaces than brushes and cloths. Some cleaning materials, notably Akapad yellow and white sponges, compressed air, latex and synthetic rubber sponges and goat hair brushes left residues on surfaces. These residues were only visible on glass-clear, transparent test plastics such as PMMA. HDPE and HIPS surfaces both had matte and roughened appearances after cleaning with dry-ice. XPS was completely destroyed by the treatment. No visible changes were present on PMMA and PVC.

Of the cleaning methods evaluated, only canned air, natural and synthetic feather duster left surfaces unchanged. Natural and synthetic feather duster, microfiber-, spectacle – and cotton cloths, cotton bud, sable hair brush and leather chamois showed good results when applied to clean model plastics.

Most mechanical cleaning materials induced static electricity after cleaning, causing immediate attraction of dust. It was also noticed that generally when adding an aqueous cleaning agent to a cleaning material, the area scratched was reduced. This implied that cleaning agents also functioned as lubricants. A similar effect was exhibited by white spirit and isopropanol.
Based on cleaning vectors, Judith Hofenk de Graaff detergent, distilled water and Dehypon LS45 were the least damaging cleaning agents for all model plastics evaluated. None of the aqueous cleaning agents caused visible changes when used in combination with the least damaging cleaning materials. Sable hair brush, synthetic feather duster and yellow Akapad sponge were unsuitable for applying aqueous cleaning agents. Polyvinyl acetate sponge swelled in contact with solvents and was only suitable for aqueous cleaning processes.

Based on cleaning vectors, white spirit was the least damaging solvent. Acetone and Surfynol 61 were the most damaging for all model plastics and cannot be recommended for cleaning plastics. Surfynol 61 dissolved polyvinyl acetate sponge and left a milky residue on surfaces, which was particularly apparent on clear PMMA surfaces. Surfynol 61 left residues on surfaces on evaporating and acetone evaporated too rapidly to lubricate cleaning materials thereby increasing scratching of surfaces.

Supercritical carbon dioxide induced discolouration and mechanical damage to the model plastics, particularly to XPS, CA and PMMA and should not be used for conservation cleaning of plastics.

Potential Impact:
Cultural heritage is recognised as an economical factor, the cost of decay of cultural heritage and the risk associated to some material in collection may be high. It is generally estimated that plastics, developed at great numbers since the 20th century’s interbellum, will not survive that long. This means that fewer generations will have access to lasting plastic art for study, contemplation and enjoyment. On the other hand will it normally be easier to reveal a contemporary object’s technological secrets because of better documentation and easier access to artists’ working methods, ideas and intentions. A first more or less world encompassing recognition of the problems involved with museum objects made wholly or in part of plastics was through the conference ‘Saving the twentieth century” held in Ottawa, Canada in 1991. This was followed later by ‘Modern Art, who cares’ in Amsterdam, The Netherlands in 1997, ‘Mortality Immortality? The Legacy of Modern Art’ in Los Angeles, USA in 1998 and, for example much more recent, ‘Plastics –Looking at the future and learning from the Past’ in London, UK in 2007. A growing professional interest in the care of plastics was clearly reflected in the creation of an ICOM-CC working group dedicated to modern materials in 1996, its name change to Modern Materials and Contemporary Art in 2002, and its growing membership from 60 at inception to over 200 at the 16th triennial conference in Lisbon, Portugal in 2011 and tentatively to over 300 as one of the aims put forward in the 2011-2014 programme of that ICOM-CC working group. …

[Intellectual property]

Another element pertaining to conservation of modern art is the copyright of artists that extends at least 50 years beyond their death. Both, damage, value and copyright may influence the way by which damage is measured through scientific analysis, more specifically through the application of invasive or non invasive techniques. Any selection of those will not only have an influence on the extent of observable damage, but also on the detail of information gathered and necessary to explain damage and to suggest conservation measures.

[How much is deteriorating?]

… it is obvious from surveys carried out in several museums in France, the UK and The Netherlands that from 15 to 35 % of what I would then call an average plastic material based collection is in a poor to unacceptable condition. However, some 75 % would require cleaning,

I hope to find out more about how nanotechnology is expected to be implemented in the conservation and preservation of plastic-based art. The NanoRestART project started in June 2015 and hopefully more information will be disseminated in the next year or so.

While it’s not directly related, there was some work with conservation of daguerreotypes (19th century photographic technique) and nanotechnology mentioned in my Nov. 17, 2015 posting which was a followup to my Jan. 10, 2015 posting about the project and the crisis precipitating it.

Transparent wood instead of glass for window panes?

The transparent wood is made by removing the lignin in the wood veneer. (Photo: Peter Larsson

The transparent wood is made by removing the lignin in the wood veneer. (Photo: Peter Larsson

Not quite ready as a replacement for some types of glass window panes, nonetheless, transparent (more like translucent) wood is an impressive achievement. According to a March 30, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily size is what makes this piece of transparent wood newsworthy,

Windows and solar panels in the future could be made from one of the best — and cheapest — construction materials known: wood. Researchers at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology [Sweden] have developed a new transparent wood material that’s suitable for mass production.

Lars Berglund, a professor at Wallenberg Wood Science Center at KTH, says that while optically transparent wood has been developed for microscopic samples in the study of wood anatomy, the KTH project introduces a way to use the material on a large scale. …

A March 31 (?), 2016 KTH Institute of Technology press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Transparent wood is a good material for solar cells, since it’s a low-cost, readily available and renewable resource,” Berglund says. “This becomes particularly important in covering large surfaces with solar cells.”

Berglund says transparent wood panels can also be used for windows, and semitransparent facades, when the idea is to let light in but maintain privacy.

The optically transparent wood is a type of wood veneer in which the lignin, a component of the cell walls, is removed chemically.

“When the lignin is removed, the wood becomes beautifully white. But because wood isn’t not naturally transparent, we achieve that effect with some nanoscale tailoring,” he says.

The white porous veneer substrate is impregnated with a transparent polymer and the optical properties of the two are then matched, he says.

“No one has previously considered the possibility of creating larger transparent structures for use as solar cells and in buildings,” he says

Among the work to be done next is enhancing the transparency of the material and scaling up the manufacturing process, Berglund says.

“We also intend to work further with different types of wood,” he adds.

“Wood is by far the most used bio-based material in buildings. It’s attractive that the material comes from renewable sources. It also offers excellent mechanical properties, including strength, toughness, low density and low thermal conductivity.”

The American Chemical Society has a March 30, 2016 news release about the KTH achievement on EurekAlert  highlighting another potential use for transparent wood,

When it comes to indoor lighting, nothing beats the sun’s rays streaming in through windows. Soon, that natural light could be shining through walls, too. Scientists have developed transparent wood that could be used in building materials and could help home and building owners save money on their artificial lighting costs. …

Homeowners often search for ways to brighten up their living space. They opt for light-colored paints, mirrors and lots of lamps and ceiling lights. But if the walls themselves were transparent, this would reduce the need for artificial lighting — and the associated energy costs. Recent work on making transparent paper from wood has led to the potential for making similar but stronger materials. Lars Berglund and colleagues wanted to pursue this possibility.

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

Optically Transparent Wood from a Nanoporous Cellulosic Template: Combining Functional and Structural Performance by Yuanyuan Li, Qiliang Fu, Shun Yu, Min Yan, and Lars Berglund. Biomacromolecules, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.biomac.6b00145 Publication Date (Web): March 4, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

Explaining research into matching plasmonic nanoantenna resonances with atoms, molecules, and quantum dots

There’s a very nice explanation of the difficulties associeated with using plasmonic nanoantennas as sensors in a March 21, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Plasmonic nanoantennas are among the hot topics in science at the moment because of their ability to interact strongly with light, which for example makes them useful for different kinds of sensing. But matching their resonances with atoms, molecules or so called quantum dots has been difficult so far because of the very different length scales involved. Thanks to a grant from the Engkvist foundation, Timur Shegai, assistant professor at Chalmers University of Technology, hopes to find a way to do this and by that open doors for applications such as safe long distance communication channels.

A molecule being illuminated by two gold nanoantennas. By: Alexander Ericson Courtesy: Chalmers University of Technology

A molecule being illuminated by two gold nanoantennas. By: Alexander Ericson Courtesy: Chalmers University of Technology

The image, looking like a stylized butterfly or bow tie, above accompanies Karin Weijdegård’s March ??, 2016 Chalmers University of Technology press release, which originated the news item, expands on the research theme,

The diffraction limit makes it very hard for light to interact with the very smallest particles or so called quantum systems such as atoms, molecules or quantum dots. The size of such a particle is simply so much smaller than the wavelength of light that there cannot be a strong interaction between the two. But by using plasmonic nanoantennas, which can be described as metallic nanostructures that are able to focus light very strongly and in wavelengths smaller than those of the visible light, one can build a bridge between the light and the atom, molecule or quantum dot and that is what Timur Shegai is working on.

“Plasmonic nanostructures are themselves smaller than wavelengths of light, but because they have a lot of free electrons they can store the electromagnetic energy in a volume which is actually a lot smaller than the diffraction limit, which helps to bridge the gap between really small objects such as molecules and the larger wavelengths of light,” he says.

Matching the harmonic with the un-harmonic

This might sound easy enough, but the problem with combining the two is that they behave in very different ways. The behaviour of plasmonic nanostructures is very linear, like a harmonic oscillator it will regularly move from side to side no matter how much energy or in other words how many excitations are stored in it. On the other hand, so called quantum systems like atoms, molecules or quantum dots are very much the opposite – their optical properties are highly un-harmonic. Here it makes a big difference if you excite the system with one or two or hundreds of photons.

“Now imagine that you couple together this un-harmonic resonator and a harmonic resonator, and add the possibility to interact with light much stronger than the un-harmonic system alone would have allowed. That opens up very interesting possibilities for quantum technologies and for non-linear optics for example. But as opposed to previous attempts that have been done at very low temperatures and in a vacuum, we will do it at room temperature.”

Communication channels impossible to hack

One possible application where this technology could be useful in the future is to create channels for long distance communications that are impossible to hack. With the current technology this kind of safe communication is only possible if the persons communicating is within a distance of about one hundred kilometres from each other, because that is the maximum distance that an individual photon can run in fibres before it scatters and the signal is lost.

“The kind of ultra small and ultra fast technology we want to develop could be useful in a so called quantum repeater, a device that could be installed across the line from for example New York to London, that would repeat the photon every time it is about to be scattered,” says Timur Shegai.

At the moment though, it is the fundamental aspects of merging plasmons with quantum systems that interest Timur Shegai. To be able to experimentally prove that the there can be interactions between the two systems, he first of all needs to fabricate model systems at the nano level. This is a big challenge, but with the grant of 1,6 million SEK over a period of two years that he just received from the Engkvist foundation, the chances of success have improved.

“Since I am a researcher at the beginning of my career every person is a huge improvement and now I can hire a post doc to work with my group. This means that the project can be divided into sub parts and together we will be able to explore more possibilities about this new technology.”

Thank you Karin Weijdegård for the explanation.

Biological supercomputers (living, breathing supercomputers) and an international collaboration spearheaded by Canadian scientists

A living, breathing supercomputer is a bit mind-boggling but scientists at McGill University (Canada) and their international colleagues have created a working model according to a Feb. 26, 2016 McGill University news release on EurekAlert (and received via email), Note: A link has been removed,

The substance that provides energy to all the cells in our bodies, Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), may also be able to power the next generation of supercomputers. That is what an international team of researchers led by Prof. Nicolau, the Chair of the Department of Bioengineering at McGill, believe. They’ve published an article on the subject earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), in which they describe a model of a biological computer that they have created that is able to process information very quickly and accurately using parallel networks in the same way that massive electronic super computers do.

Except that the model bio supercomputer they have created is a whole lot smaller than current supercomputers, uses much less energy, and uses proteins present in all living cells to function.

Doodling on the back of an envelope

“We’ve managed to create a very complex network in a very small area,” says Dan Nicolau, Sr. with a laugh. He began working on the idea with his son, Dan Jr., more than a decade ago and was then joined by colleagues from Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands, some 7 years ago [there is also one collaborator from the US according the journal’s [PNAS] list of author affiliations, read on for the link to the paper]. “This started as a back of an envelope idea, after too much rum I think, with drawings of what looked like small worms exploring mazes.”

The model bio-supercomputer that the Nicolaus (father and son) and their colleagues have created came about thanks to a combination of geometrical modelling and engineering knowhow (on the nano scale). It is a first step, in showing that this kind of biological supercomputer can actually work.

The circuit the researchers have created looks a bit like a road map of a busy and very organized city as seen from a plane. Just as in a city, cars and trucks of different sizes, powered by motors of different kinds, navigate through channels that have been created for them, consuming the fuel they need to keep moving.

More sustainable computing

But in the case of the biocomputer, the city is a chip measuring about 1.5 cm square in which channels have been etched. Instead of the electrons that are propelled by an electrical charge and move around within a traditional microchip, short strings of proteins (which the researchers call biological agents) travel around the circuit in a controlled way, their movements powered by ATP, the chemical that is, in some ways, the juice of life for everything from plants to politicians.

Because it is run by biological agents, and as a result hardly heats up at all, the model bio-supercomputer that the researchers have developed uses far less energy than standard electronic supercomputers do, making it more sustainable. Traditional supercomputers use so much electricity that they heat up a lot and then need to be cooled down, often requiring their own power plant to function.

Moving from model to reality

Although the model bio supercomputer was able to very efficiently tackle a complex classical mathematical problem by using parallel computing of the kind used by supercomputers, the researchers recognize that there is still a lot of work ahead to move from the model they have created to a full-scale functional computer.

”Now that this model exists as a way of successfully dealing with a single problem, there are going to be many others who will follow up and try to push it further, using different biological agents, for example,” says Nicolau. “It’s hard to say how soon it will be before we see a full scale bio super-computer. One option for dealing with larger and more complex problems may be to combine our device with a conventional computer to form a hybrid device. Right now we’re working on a variety of ways to push the research further.”

What was once the stuff of science fiction, is now just science.

The funding for this project is interesting,

This research was funded by: The European Union Seventh Framework Programme; [US] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA]; NanoLund; The Miller Foundation; The Swedish Research Council; The Carl Trygger Foundation; the German Research Foundation; and by Linnaeus University.

I don’t see a single Canadian funding agency listed.

In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Parallel computation with molecular-motor-propelled agents in nanofabricated networks by Dan V. Nicolau, Jr., Mercy Lard, Till Kortend, Falco C. M. J. M. van Delft, Malin Persson, Elina Bengtsson, Alf Månsson, Stefan Diez, Heiner Linke, and Dan V. Nicolau. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/02/17/1510825113

This paper appears to be open access.

Finally, the researchers have provided an image illustrating their work,

Caption: Strands of proteins of different lengths move around the chip in the bio computer in directed patterns, a bit like cars and trucks navigating the streets of a city. Credit: Till Korten

Caption: Strands of proteins of different lengths move around the chip in the bio computer in directed patterns, a bit like cars and trucks navigating the streets of a city. Credit: Till Korten

ETA Feb. 29 2016: Technical University Dresden’s Feb. 26, 2016 press release on EurekAlert also announces the bio-computer albeit from a rather different perspective,

The pioneering achievement was developed by researchers from the Technische Universität Dresden and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden in collaboration with international partners from Canada, England, Sweden, the US, and the Netherlands.

Conventional electronic computers have led to remarkable technological advances in the past decades, but their sequential nature -they process only one computational task at a time- prevents them from solving problems of combinatorial nature such as protein design and folding, and optimal network routing. This is because the number of calculations required to solve such problems grows exponentially with the size of the problem, rendering them intractable with sequential computing. Parallel computing approaches can in principle tackle such problems, but the approaches developed so far have suffered from drawbacks that have made up-scaling and practical implementation very difficult. The recently reported parallel-computing approach aims to address these issues by combining well established nanofabrication technology with molecular motors which are highly energy efficient and inherently work in parallel.

In this approach, which the researchers demonstrate on a benchmark combinatorial problem that is notoriously hard to solve with sequential computers, the problem to be solved is ‘encoded’ into a network of nanoscale channels (Fig. 1a). This is done, on the one hand by mathematically designing a geometrical network that is capable of representing the problem, and on the other hand by fabricating a physical network based on this design using so-called lithography, a standard chip-manufacturing technique.

The network is then explored in parallel by many protein filaments (here actin filaments or microtubules) that are self-propelled by a molecular layer of motor proteins (here myosin or kinesin) covering the bottom of the channels (Fig. 3a). The design of the network using different types of junctions automatically guides the filaments to the correct solutions to the problem (Fig. 1b). This is realized by different types of junctions, causing the filaments to behave in two different ways. As the filaments are rather rigid structures, turning to the left or right is only possible for certain angles of the crossing channels. By defining these options (‘split junctions’ Fig. 2a + 3b and ‘pass junctions’, Fig. 2b + 3c) the scientists achieved an ‘intelligent’ network giving the filaments the opportunity either to cross only straight or to decide between two possible channels with a 50/50 probability.

The time to solve combinatorial problems of size N using this parallel-computing approach scales approximately as N2, which is a dramatic improvement over the exponential (2N) time scales required by conventional, sequential computers. Importantly, the approach is fully scalable with existing technologies and uses orders of magnitude less energy than conventional computers, thus circumventing the heating issues that are currently limiting the performance of conventional computing.

The diagrams mentioned were not included with the press release.

Weaving at the nanoscale

A Jan. 21, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces a brand new technique,

For the first time, scientists have been able to weave a material at molecular level. The research is led by University of California Berkeley, in cooperation with Stockholm University. …

A Jan. 21, 2016 Stockholm University press release, which originated the news item, provides more information,

Weaving is a well-known way of making fabric, but has until now never been used at the molecular level. Scientists have now been able to weave organic threads into a three-dimensional material, using copper as a template. The new material is a COF, covalent organic framework, and is named COF-505. The copper ions can be removed and added without changing the underlying structure, and at the same time the elasticity can be reversibly changed.

– It almost looks like a molecular version of the Vikings chain-armour. The material is very flexible, says Peter Oleynikov, researcher at the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University.

COF’s are like MOF’s porous three-dimensional crystals with a very large internal surface that can adsorb and store enormous quantities of molecules. A potential application is capture and storage of carbon dioxide, or using COF’s as a catalyst to make useful molecules from carbon dioxide.

Complex structure determined in Stockholm

The research is led by Professor Omar Yaghi at University of California Berkeley. At Stockholm University Professor Osamu Terasaki, PhD Student Yanhang Ma and Researcher Peter Oleynikov have contributed to determine the structure of COF-505 at atomic level from a nano-crystal, using electron crystallography methods.

– It is a difficult, complicated structure and it was very demanding to resolve. We’ve spent lot of time and efforts on the structure solution. Now we know exactly where the copper is and we can also replace the metal. This opens up many possibilities to make other materials, says Yanhang Ma, PhD Student at the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University.

Another of the collaborating institutions, US Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory issued a Jan. 21, 2016 news release on EurekAlert, providing a different perspective and some additional details,

There are many different ways to make nanomaterials but weaving, the oldest and most enduring method of making fabrics, has not been one of them – until now. An international collaboration led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley, has woven the first three-dimensional covalent organic frameworks (COFs) from helical organic threads. The woven COFs display significant advantages in structural flexibility, resiliency and reversibility over previous COFs – materials that are highly prized for their potential to capture and store carbon dioxide then convert it into valuable chemical products.

“Weaving in chemistry has been long sought after and is unknown in biology,” Yaghi says [Omar Yaghi, chemist who holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and UC Berkeley’s Chemistry Department and is the co-director of the Kavli Energy NanoScience Institute {Kavli-ENSI}]. “However, we have found a way of weaving organic threads that enables us to design and make complex two- and three-dimensional organic extended structures.”

COFs and their cousin materials, metal organic frameworks (MOFs), are porous three-dimensional crystals with extraordinarily large internal surface areas that can absorb and store enormous quantities of targeted molecules. Invented by Yaghi, COFs and MOFs consist of molecules (organics for COFs and metal-organics for MOFs) that are stitched into large and extended netlike frameworks whose structures are held together by strong chemical bonds. Such frameworks show great promise for, among other applications, carbon sequestration.

Through another technique developed by Yaghi, called “reticular chemistry,” these frameworks can also be embedded with catalysts to carry out desired functions: for example, reducing carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, which serves as a primary building block for a wide range of chemical products including fuels, pharmaceuticals and plastics.

In this latest study, Yaghi and his collaborators used a copper(I) complex as a template for bringing threads of the organic compound “phenanthroline” into a woven pattern to produce an immine-based framework they dubbed COF-505. Through X-ray and electron diffraction characterizations, the researchers discovered that the copper(I) ions can be reversibly removed or restored to COF-505 without changing its woven structure. Demetalation of the COF resulted in a tenfold increase in its elasticity and remetalation restored the COF to its original stiffness.

“That our system can switch between two states of elasticity reversibly by a simple operation, the first such demonstration in an extended chemical structure, means that cycling between these states can be done repeatedly without degrading or altering the structure,” Yaghi says. “Based on these results, it is easy to imagine the creation of molecular cloths that combine unusual resiliency, strength, flexibility and chemical variability in one material.”

Yaghi says that MOFs can also be woven as can all structures based on netlike frameworks. In addition, these woven structures can also be made as nanoparticles or polymers, which means they can be fabricated into thin films and electronic devices.

“Our weaving technique allows long threads of covalently linked molecules to cross at regular intervals,” Yaghi says. “These crossings serve as points of registry, so that the threads have many degrees of freedom to move away from and back to such points without collapsing the overall structure, a boon to making materials with exceptional mechanical properties and dynamics.”

###

This research was primarily supported by BASF (Germany) and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).

It’s unusual that neither Stockholm University not the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory list all of the institutions involved. To get a sense of this international collaboration’s size, I’m going to list them,

  • 1Department of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, Materials Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 2Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry, Stockholm University, SE-10691 Stockholm, Sweden.
  • 3Department of New Architectures in Materials Chemistry, Materials Science Institute of Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid 28049, Spain.
  • 4Nanomaterials Research Institute, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Tsukuba 305-8565, Japan.
  • 5NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC), University of California at Berkeley, 3112 Etcheverry Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 6Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 7King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology, Post Office Box 6086, Riyadh 11442, Saudi Arabia.
  • 8Material Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1 Cyclotron Road, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 9School of Physical Science and Technology, ShanghaiTech University, Shanghai 201210, China.

Given that some of the money came from a German company, I’m surprised not one German institution was involved.

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

Weaving of organic threads into a crystalline covalent organic framework by Yuzhong Liu, Yanhang Ma, Yingbo Zhao, Xixi Sun, Felipe Gándara, Hiroyasu Furukawa, Zheng Liu, Hanyu Zhu, Chenhui Zhu, Kazutomo Suenaga, Peter Oleynikov, Ahmad S. Alshammari, Xiang Zhang, Osamu Terasaki, Omar M. Yaghi. Science  22 Jan 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6271, pp. 365-369 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4011

This paper is behind a paywall.

Paper as good at storing electrical energy as commercial supercapacitors

This is another potential nanocellulose application according to a Dec. 3, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at Linköping University’s Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Sweden, have developed power paper — a new material with an outstanding ability to store energy. The material consists of nanocellulose and a conductive polymer. …

One sheet, 15 centimetres in diameter and a few tenths of a millimetre thick can store as much as 1 F, which is similar to the supercapacitors currently on the market. The material can be recharged hundreds of times and each charge only takes a few seconds.

A Dec. 3, 2015 Linköping University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

It’s a dream product in a world where the increased use of renewable energy requires new methods for energy storage — from summer to winter, from a windy day to a calm one, from a sunny day to one with heavy cloud cover.

“Thin films that function as capacitors have existed for some time. What we have done is to produce the material in three dimensions. We can produce thick sheets,” says Xavier Crispin, professor of organic electronics and co-author to the article just published in Advanced Science.

Other co-authors are researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Innventia, Technical University of Denmark and the University of Kentucky.

The material, power paper, looks and feels like a slightly plasticky paper and the researchers have amused themselves by using one piece to make an origami swan — which gives an indication of its strength.

The structural foundation of the material is nanocellulose, which is cellulose fibres which, using high-pressure water, are broken down into fibres as thin as 20 nm in diameter. With the cellulose fibres in a solution of water, an electrically charged polymer (PEDOT:PSS), also in a water solution, is added. The polymer then forms a thin coating around the fibres.

“The covered fibres are in tangles, where the liquid in the spaces between them functions as an electrolyte,” explains Jesper Edberg, doctoral student, who conducted the experiments together with Abdellah Malti, who recently completed his doctorate.

The new cellulose-polymer material has set a new world record in simultaneous conductivity for ions and electrons, which explains its exceptional capacity for energy storage. It also opens the door to continued development toward even higher capacity. Unlike the batteries and capacitors currently on the market, power paper is produced from simple materials – renewable cellulose and an easily available polymer. It is light in weight, it requires no dangerous chemicals or heavy metals and it is waterproof.

This press release also offers insight into funding and how scientists view requests for reports and oversight,

The Power Papers project has been financed by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation since 2012.

“They leave us to our research, without demanding lengthy reports, and they trust us. We have a lot of pressure on us to deliver, but it’s ok if it takes time, and we’re grateful for that,” says Professor Magnus Berggren, director of the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University.

Naturally, commercialization efforts are already in the works. (Canadian nanocellulose community watch out! The Swedes are coming!),

The new power paper is just like regular pulp, which has to be dehydrated when making paper. The challenge is to develop an industrial-scale process for this.

“Together with KTH, Acreo and Innventia we just received SEK 34 million from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research to continue our efforts to develop a rational production method, a paper machine for power paper,” says Professor Berggren.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the team’s study,

An Organic Mixed Ion–Electron Conductor for Power Electronics by Abdellah Malti, Jesper Edberg, Hjalmar Granberg, Zia Ullah Khan, Jens W. Andreasen, Xianjie Liu, Dan Zhao, Hao Zhang, Yulong Yao, Joseph W. Brill, Isak Engquist, Mats Fahlman, Lars Wågberg, Xavier Crispin, and Magnus Berggren. Advanced Science DOI: 10.1002/advs.201500305 Article first published online: 2 DEC 2015

© 2015 The Authors. Published by WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is open access.