Tag Archives: University of Groningen

Predicting drug side effects with guts-on-a-chip

It’s been a while since I’ve featured a story about a technology that could drastically reduce (or even eliminate) animal testing. Researchers in the Netherlands have announced some guts-on-a-chip research that may do just that. From an Aug. 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Research conducted at Leiden has established that guts-on-chips respond in the same way to aspirin as real human organs do. This is a sign that these model organs are good predictors of the effect of medical drugs on the human body.

A method to test medical drugs for efficacy and potential side-effects, but then much cheaper and using the fewest possible lab animals: this is likely to be possible in future thanks to organs-on-chips, miniature model organs on microchips. In these model organs, which are equipped with human organ cells and microfluidic channels, researchers and pharmacists can mimic the working of an organ.

An Aug. 17, 2017 University of Leiden (Universiteit Leiden) press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Leiden researchers, their spin-off company Mimetas and pharmaceutical company Roche have now shown that one type of organ chip experiences the same side-effects from the drug aspirin as the same organ in the human body. This is good news, because it is a sign that these miniature model organs are good predictors of the effect of medical drugs in the human body.


The researchers exposed 357 guts-on-chips for a significant period to the substance acetylsalicylic acid, better known as the analgesic aspirin. It has been known for a long time already that this substance can lead to gastrointestinal perforation, a complication that can be fatal if untreated. ‘We saw exactly the same side-effects occur in our guts-on-chips,’ says Professor of Analytical Biosciences Thomas Hankemeier. ‘In our model guts the gut wall also became more permeable after the drug had been administered.’

Effectiveness of candidate drugs

According to Hankemeier, the research shows that organs-on-chips are suited to testing a medical drug for efficacy and side-effects. This is good news for pharmacists, because the model organs make it easier for them to evaluate whether candidate drugs are effective or harmful. Many substances would be excluded from futher research before a drug entered the lab animal phase. This would help reduce the cost of drug production and mean less animal testing.

Diagnosing diseases

Organs-on-chips have taken off in recent years. They will be increasingly important in the near future, not just in drug development but also in the diagnosis of disease. Leiden researchers are at the forefront of this development. Hankemeier and a number of other groups (Erasmus MC, VUmc, RU Groningen) have been awared a 1.5 million ZonMW grant to research the effect of the body’s micro-organisms in the gut on the development of dementia. Organ-on-a-chip technology will play an important role here. Mimetas is the first company in the world to produce and sell organ chips on a large scale.

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

Membrane-free culture and real-time barrier integrity assessment of perfused intestinal epithelium tubes by Sebastiaan J. Trietsch, Elena Naumovska, Dorota Kurek, Meily C. Setyawati, Marianne K. Vormann, Karlijn J. Wilschut, Henriëtte L. Lanz, Arnaud Nicolas, Chee Ping Ng, Jos Joore, Stefan Kustermann, Adrian Roth, Thomas Hankemeier, Annie Moisan, & Paul Vulto. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 262 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-00259-3 Published online: 15 August 2017

This paper is open access.

You can find Mimetas here.

High-performance, low-energy artificial synapse for neural network computing

This artificial synapse is apparently an improvement on the standard memristor-based artificial synapse but that doesn’t become clear until reading the abstract for the paper. First, there’s a Feb. 20, 2017 Stanford University news release by Taylor Kubota (dated Feb. 21, 2017 on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

For all the improvements in computer technology over the years, we still struggle to recreate the low-energy, elegant processing of the human brain. Now, researchers at Stanford University and Sandia National Laboratories have made an advance that could help computers mimic one piece of the brain’s efficient design – an artificial version of the space over which neurons communicate, called a synapse.

“It works like a real synapse but it’s an organic electronic device that can be engineered,” said Alberto Salleo, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and senior author of the paper. “It’s an entirely new family of devices because this type of architecture has not been shown before. For many key metrics, it also performs better than anything that’s been done before with inorganics.”

The new artificial synapse, reported in the Feb. 20 issue of Nature Materials, mimics the way synapses in the brain learn through the signals that cross them. This is a significant energy savings over traditional computing, which involves separately processing information and then storing it into memory. Here, the processing creates the memory.

This synapse may one day be part of a more brain-like computer, which could be especially beneficial for computing that works with visual and auditory signals. Examples of this are seen in voice-controlled interfaces and driverless cars. Past efforts in this field have produced high-performance neural networks supported by artificially intelligent algorithms but these are still distant imitators of the brain that depend on energy-consuming traditional computer hardware.

Building a brain

When we learn, electrical signals are sent between neurons in our brain. The most energy is needed the first time a synapse is traversed. Every time afterward, the connection requires less energy. This is how synapses efficiently facilitate both learning something new and remembering what we’ve learned. The artificial synapse, unlike most other versions of brain-like computing, also fulfills these two tasks simultaneously, and does so with substantial energy savings.

“Deep learning algorithms are very powerful but they rely on processors to calculate and simulate the electrical states and store them somewhere else, which is inefficient in terms of energy and time,” said Yoeri van de Burgt, former postdoctoral scholar in the Salleo lab and lead author of the paper. “Instead of simulating a neural network, our work is trying to make a neural network.”

The artificial synapse is based off a battery design. It consists of two thin, flexible films with three terminals, connected by an electrolyte of salty water. The device works as a transistor, with one of the terminals controlling the flow of electricity between the other two.

Like a neural path in a brain being reinforced through learning, the researchers program the artificial synapse by discharging and recharging it repeatedly. Through this training, they have been able to predict within 1 percent of uncertainly what voltage will be required to get the synapse to a specific electrical state and, once there, it remains at that state. In other words, unlike a common computer, where you save your work to the hard drive before you turn it off, the artificial synapse can recall its programming without any additional actions or parts.

Testing a network of artificial synapses

Only one artificial synapse has been produced but researchers at Sandia used 15,000 measurements from experiments on that synapse to simulate how an array of them would work in a neural network. They tested the simulated network’s ability to recognize handwriting of digits 0 through 9. Tested on three datasets, the simulated array was able to identify the handwritten digits with an accuracy between 93 to 97 percent.

Although this task would be relatively simple for a person, traditional computers have a difficult time interpreting visual and auditory signals.

“More and more, the kinds of tasks that we expect our computing devices to do require computing that mimics the brain because using traditional computing to perform these tasks is becoming really power hungry,” said A. Alec Talin, distinguished member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, and senior author of the paper. “We’ve demonstrated a device that’s ideal for running these type of algorithms and that consumes a lot less power.”

This device is extremely well suited for the kind of signal identification and classification that traditional computers struggle to perform. Whereas digital transistors can be in only two states, such as 0 and 1, the researchers successfully programmed 500 states in the artificial synapse, which is useful for neuron-type computation models. In switching from one state to another they used about one-tenth as much energy as a state-of-the-art computing system needs in order to move data from the processing unit to the memory.

This, however, means they are still using about 10,000 times as much energy as the minimum a biological synapse needs in order to fire. The researchers are hopeful that they can attain neuron-level energy efficiency once they test the artificial synapse in smaller devices.

Organic potential

Every part of the device is made of inexpensive organic materials. These aren’t found in nature but they are largely composed of hydrogen and carbon and are compatible with the brain’s chemistry. Cells have been grown on these materials and they have even been used to make artificial pumps for neural transmitters. The voltages applied to train the artificial synapse are also the same as those that move through human neurons.

All this means it’s possible that the artificial synapse could communicate with live neurons, leading to improved brain-machine interfaces. The softness and flexibility of the device also lends itself to being used in biological environments. Before any applications to biology, however, the team plans to build an actual array of artificial synapses for further research and testing.

Additional Stanford co-authors of this work include co-lead author Ewout Lubberman, also of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Scott T. Keene and Grégorio C. Faria, also of Universidade de São Paulo, in Brazil. Sandia National Laboratories co-authors include Elliot J. Fuller and Sapan Agarwal in Livermore and Matthew J. Marinella in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Salleo is an affiliate of the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. Van de Burgt is now an assistant professor in microsystems and an affiliate of the Institute for Complex Molecular Studies (ICMS) at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Keck Faculty Scholar Funds, the Neurofab at Stanford, the Stanford Graduate Fellowship, Sandia’s Laboratory-Directed Research and Development Program, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Holland Scholarship, the University of Groningen Scholarship for Excellent Students, the Hendrik Muller National Fund, the Schuurman Schimmel-van Outeren Foundation, the Foundation of Renswoude (The Hague and Delft), the Marco Polo Fund, the Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia/Instituto Nacional de Eletrônica Orgânica in Brazil, the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo and the Brazilian National Council.

Here’s an abstract for the researchers’ paper (link to paper provided after abstract) and it’s where you’ll find the memristor connection explained,

The brain is capable of massively parallel information processing while consuming only ~1–100fJ per synaptic event1, 2. Inspired by the efficiency of the brain, CMOS-based neural architectures3 and memristors4, 5 are being developed for pattern recognition and machine learning. However, the volatility, design complexity and high supply voltages for CMOS architectures, and the stochastic and energy-costly switching of memristors complicate the path to achieve the interconnectivity, information density, and energy efficiency of the brain using either approach. Here we describe an electrochemical neuromorphic organic device (ENODe) operating with a fundamentally different mechanism from existing memristors. ENODe switches at low voltage and energy (<10pJ for 103μm2 devices), displays >500 distinct, non-volatile conductance states within a ~1V range, and achieves high classification accuracy when implemented in neural network simulations. Plastic ENODes are also fabricated on flexible substrates enabling the integration of neuromorphic functionality in stretchable electronic systems6, 7. Mechanical flexibility makes ENODes compatible with three-dimensional architectures, opening a path towards extreme interconnectivity comparable to the human brain.

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

A non-volatile organic electrochemical device as a low-voltage artificial synapse for neuromorphic computing by Yoeri van de Burgt, Ewout Lubberman, Elliot J. Fuller, Scott T. Keene, Grégorio C. Faria, Sapan Agarwal, Matthew J. Marinella, A. Alec Talin, & Alberto Salleo. Nature Materials (2017) doi:10.1038/nmat4856 Published online 20 February 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

ETA March 8, 2017 10:28 PST: You may find this this piece on ferroelectricity and neuromorphic engineering of interest (March 7, 2017 posting titled: Ferroelectric roadmap to neuromorphic computing).

Nominations open for Kabiller Prizes in Nanoscience and Nanomedicine ($250,000 for visionary researcher and $10,000 for young investigator)

For a change I can publish something that doesn’t have a deadline in three days or less! Without more ado (from a Feb. 20, 2017 Northwestern University news release by Megan Fellman [h/t Nanowerk’s Feb. 20, 2017 news item]),

Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) is now accepting nominations for two prestigious international prizes: the $250,000 Kabiller Prize in Nanoscience and Nanomedicine and the $10,000 Kabiller Young Investigator Award in Nanoscience and Nanomedicine.

The deadline for nominations is May 15, 2017. Details are available on the IIN website.

“Our goal is to recognize the outstanding accomplishments in nanoscience and nanomedicine that have the potential to benefit all humankind,” said David G. Kabiller, a Northwestern trustee and alumnus. He is a co-founder of AQR Capital Management, a global investment management firm in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The two prizes, awarded every other year, were established in 2015 through a generous gift from Kabiller. Current Northwestern-affiliated researchers are not eligible for nomination until 2018 for the 2019 prizes.

The Kabiller Prize — the largest monetary award in the world for outstanding achievement in the field of nanomedicine — celebrates researchers who have made the most significant contributions to the field of nanotechnology and its application to medicine and biology.

The Kabiller Young Investigator Award recognizes young emerging researchers who have made recent groundbreaking discoveries with the potential to make a lasting impact in nanoscience and nanomedicine.

“The IIN at Northwestern University is a hub of excellence in the field of nanotechnology,” said Kabiller, chair of the IIN executive council and a graduate of Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Kellogg School of Management. “As such, it is the ideal organization from which to launch these awards recognizing outstanding achievements that have the potential to substantially benefit society.”

Nanoparticles for medical use are typically no larger than 100 nanometers — comparable in size to the molecules in the body. At this scale, the essential properties (e.g., color, melting point, conductivity, etc.) of structures behave uniquely. Researchers are capitalizing on these unique properties in their quest to realize life-changing advances in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease.

“Nanotechnology is one of the key areas of distinction at Northwestern,” said Chad A. Mirkin, IIN director and George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in Weinberg. “We are very grateful for David’s ongoing support and are honored to be stewards of these prestigious awards.”

An international committee of experts in the field will select the winners of the 2017 Kabiller Prize and the 2017 Kabiller Young Investigator Award and announce them in September.

The recipients will be honored at an awards banquet Sept. 27 in Chicago. They also will be recognized at the 2017 IIN Symposium, which will include talks from prestigious speakers, including 2016 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Ben Feringa, from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

2015 recipient of the Kabiller Prize

The winner of the inaugural Kabiller Prize, in 2015, was Joseph DeSimone the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University and of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill.

DeSimone was honored for his invention of particle replication in non-wetting templates (PRINT) technology that enables the fabrication of precisely defined, shape-specific nanoparticles for advances in disease treatment and prevention. Nanoparticles made with PRINT technology are being used to develop new cancer treatments, inhalable therapeutics for treating pulmonary diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and asthma, and next-generation vaccines for malaria, pneumonia and dengue.

2015 recipient of the Kabiller Young Investigator Award

Warren Chan, professor at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, was the recipient of the inaugural Kabiller Young Investigator Award, also in 2015. Chan and his research group have developed an infectious disease diagnostic device for a point-of-care use that can differentiate symptoms.

BTW, Warren Chan, winner of the ‘Young Investigator Award’, and/or his work have been featured here a few times, most recently in a Nov. 1, 2016 posting, which is mostly about another award he won but also includes links to some his work including my April 27, 2016 post about the discovery that fewer than 1% of nanoparticle-based drugs reach their destination.

2016 Nobel Chemistry Prize for molecular machines

Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016 was the day three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on molecular machines, according to an Oct. 5, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday [Oct. 5, 2016] for developing the world’s smallest machines, 1,000 times thinner than a human hair but with the potential to revolutionize computer and energy systems.

Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Scottish-born Fraser Stoddart and Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa share the 8 million kronor ($930,000) prize for the “design and synthesis of molecular machines,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Machines at the molecular level have taken chemistry to a new dimension and “will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems,” the academy said.

Practical applications are still far away—the academy said molecular motors are at the same stage that electrical motors were in the first half of the 19th century—but the potential is huge.

Dexter Johnson in an Oct. 5, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) provides some insight into the matter (Note: A link has been removed),

In what seems to have come both as a shock to some of the recipients and a confirmation to all those who envision molecular nanotechnology as the true future of nanotechnology, Bernard Feringa, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart have been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of molecular machines.

The Nobel Prize was awarded to all three of the scientists based on their complementary work over nearly three decades. First, in 1983, Sauvage (currently at Strasbourg University in France) was able to link two ring-shaped molecules to form a chain. Then, eight years later, Stoddart, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., demonstrated that a molecular ring could turn on a thin molecular axle. Then, eight years after that, Feringa, a professor at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, built on Stoddardt’s work and fabricated a molecular rotor blade that could spin continually in the same direction.

Speaking of the Nobel committee’s selection, Donna Nelson, a chemist and president of the American Chemical Society told Scientific American: “I think this topic is going to be fabulous for science. When the Nobel Prize is given, it inspires a lot of interest in the topic by other researchers. It will also increase funding.” Nelson added that this line of research will be fascinating for kids. “They can visualize it, and imagine a nanocar. This comes at a great time, when we need to inspire the next generation of scientists.”

The Economist, which appears to be previewing an article about the 2016 Nobel prizes ahead of the print version, has this to say in its Oct. 8, 2016 article,

BIGGER is not always better. Anyone who doubts that has only to look at the explosion of computing power which has marked the past half-century. This was made possible by continual shrinkage of the components computers are made from. That success has, in turn, inspired a search for other areas where shrinkage might also yield dividends.

One such, which has been poised delicately between hype and hope since the 1990s, is nanotechnology. What people mean by this term has varied over the years—to the extent that cynics might be forgiven for wondering if it is more than just a fancy rebranding of the word “chemistry”—but nanotechnology did originally have a fairly clear definition. It was the idea that machines with moving parts could be made on a molecular scale. And in recognition of this goal Sweden’s Royal Academy of Science this week decided to award this year’s Nobel prize for chemistry to three researchers, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa, who have never lost sight of nanotechnology’s original objective.

Optimists talk of manufacturing molecule-sized machines ranging from drug-delivery devices to miniature computers. Pessimists recall that nanotechnology is a field that has been puffed up repeatedly by both researchers and investors, only to deflate in the face of practical difficulties.

There is, though, reason to hope it will work in the end. This is because, as is often the case with human inventions, Mother Nature has got there first. One way to think of living cells is as assemblies of nanotechnological machines. For example, the enzyme that produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—a molecule used in almost all living cells to fuel biochemical reactions—includes a spinning molecular machine rather like Dr Feringa’s invention. This works well. The ATP generators in a human body turn out so much of the stuff that over the course of a day they create almost a body-weight’s-worth of it. Do something equivalent commercially, and the hype around nanotechnology might prove itself justified.

Congratulations to the three winners!

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).

Crowdfund nano spies for cancer

University of Groningen (Netherlands) researcher, Romana Schirhagl, is crowdfunding her development of a new technique (using nanodiamonds) for biomedical research which would allow observation of free radicals in cells. From a June 25, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Romana Schirhagl, a researcher at the University Medical Center Groningen, is hoping to garner public support for a new form of cancer research. Schirhagl wants to introduce miniscule diamonds into living cancer cells. Like spies, these nanodiamonds will be on a mission to reveal the secrets of the cell. Schirhagl applies a unique combination of knowledge and techniques from physics, chemistry and medicine in the research. This could form the basis of new and improved cancer drugs.

A June 16, 2015 University of Groningen press release, which originated the news item, provides background information for the research,

The research of Schirhagl and her research group in the department of Biomedical Engineering focuses on the behaviour of free radicals in a cell. These radicals have an important role in the body. They are sometimes extremely useful, as in the immune system, where they help fight bacteria and viruses, but sometimes very harmful, as when they actually harm healthy cells and can cause cancer. As the radicals only exist for a fraction of a second, it is difficult to tell them apart and study them.

New technique

Schirhagl wants to apply a new technique that currently is mainly used in fundamental physics but looks extremely promising for biomedical research. The technique is based on very small diamonds that can ‘sense’ the presence of magnetic fields from the radicals. The nanodiamonds are fluorescent and change in luminosity as a response to their environment. This makes it easier to determine which radicals occur when and how they work. This information should make it possible to improve cancer drugs – which themselves sometimes use free radicals – or even develop new ones.

Unexpectedly, the crowdfunding platform is the University of Groningen’s own. You can find out more about Nano spies here. To date the project has raised over 6,600 Euros towards a goal of 20,000 Euros.

Viewing a photosynthesis subsystem in a near-natural state

[downloaded from http://www.desy.de/infos__services/presse/pressemeldungen/@@news-view?id=9383]

Molecular structure of photosystem II, which arranges itself in rows. Credit: Martin Bommer/HU Berlin [downloaded from http://www.desy.de/infos__services/presse/pressemeldungen/@@news-view?id=9383]

Apparently, this image represents a near-natural state for a photosynthesis subsystem called, Photosynthesis II. Here’s more from a Nov. 4, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Photosynthesis is one of the most important processes in nature. The complex method with which all green plants harvest sunlight and thereby produce the oxygen in our air is, however, still not fully understood. Researchers using DESY’s X-ray light source PETRA III have examined a photosynthesis subsystem in a near-natural state. According to the scientists led by Privatdozentin Dr. Athina Zouni from the Humboldt University (HU) Berlin, the X-ray experiments on what is known as photosystem II reveal, for example, yet unknown structures. Their results are published in the scientific journal Structure (“Native-like Photosystem II Superstructure at 2.44 Å Resolution through Detergent Extraction from the Protein Crystal”). The technology utilised could also be of interest for analysing other biomolecules.

A Nov. 4, 2014 DESY (Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron) press release, which originated the news item, describes some of the issues with studying ‘photosynthetic machinery’,

Photosystem II forms part of the photosynthetic machinery where water, with the help of sunlight, is split into hydrogen and oxygen. As one of the membrane proteins, it sits in the cell membrane. Membrane proteins are a large and vital group of biomolecules that are, for example, important in addressing a variety of medical issues. In order to decode the protein structure and reveal details on how biomolecules function, researchers use the very bright and short-wave X-rays of PETRA III and other similar facilities. Small crystals, however, must initially be grown from these biomolecules.

“The structure of single molecules cannot be directly seen even with the brightest X-rays,” explains co-author and DESY researcher Dr. Anja Burkhardt of Measuring Station P11, where the experiments were carried out. “In a crystal, however, a multitude of these molecules are arranged in a highly symmetrical fashion. Thus the signal, resulting from X-ray diffraction of these molecules, is amplified. The molecular structure can then be calculated from the diffraction images.”

In addition to these difficulties the scientists were also grappling with this problem (from the press release),

Biomolecules – and especially membrane proteins – cannot easily be compelled into crystal form as it is contrary to their natural state. Preparing suitable samples is therefore a crucial step in the whole analysis process. For instance, photosystem II must be first separated from the membrane, where it is bound to numerous small fat molecules (lipids). Researchers use special detergents for this purpose, such as those also principally found in soap. The catch: instead of lipids, the biomolecules are now surrounded by detergents, which may make the crystals spongy under certain conditions, thus exacerbating the analysis.

“What we want is to come as close as possible to nature,” stresses Zouni. The closer the proteins in the crystal are to their natural state, the better the results.

The press release describes how the team solved the problem,

“The trick was to use a detergent that strongly differs from the lipids in composition and structure,” explains the researcher.

Before examining the biomolecular crystals using X-rays, a portion of the water is extracted and replaced by an anti-freeze. The crystals are usually frozen for the experiments because the high-energy X-ray doesn’t damage them so quickly in the frozen state. During this process, the researchers would like to avoid ice formation.

“The dehydration process removed not only the water in our samples, but also completely removed the detergent, something we didn’t expect,” says Zouni.“Our samples are closer to the natural state than what has been reported before.”

Consequently, the investigation’s spatial resolution increased from about 0.6 nanometres (a millionth of a millimetre) to 0.244 nanometres. This is not, in fact, the highest resolution ever achieved in a photosystem II study, but the analysis shows that the photosystem II proteins are arranged within the crystals as pairs of rows, something that also occurs in the natural environment.

This latest development builds on previous research according to the press release,

Electron microscope investigations by Professor Egbert Boekema’s group at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands had already shown the photosystems’ crystal like arrangement in the natural membrane — a kind of tiny solar cell. Electron microscopy could better recognize connections using direct observation of the native membrane while X-ray crystallography could reveal the smallest details.

The press release ends with how the latest work could have an impact on further research,

“We placed the structural data over the electron microscope images – they matched precisely,” says Zouni. The investigation also revealed structures that were invisible before. “We can see exactly where the bonds to the lipids are located,” the scientist explains. The more the researchers discover about photosystem II, the better they understand exactly how it functions.

The procedure of using a new detergent, however, is not only interesting in terms of photosystem II. “The method can potentially be applied to many membrane proteins,” stresses Zouni. In the future, many biomolecules could maybe examined in a more natural state than ever before.

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

Native-like Photosystem II Superstructure at 2.44 Å Resolution through Detergent Extraction from the Protein Crystal by Julia Hellmich, Martin Bommer, Anja Burkhardt, Mohamed Ibrahim, Jan Kern, Alke Meents, Frank Müh, Holger Dobbek, and Athina Zouni. Structure Volume 22, Issue 11, p1607–1615, 4 November 2014  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.str.2014.09.007

This paper is open access.

ETA Nov. 6, 2014: On the off chance the links to the Nanowerk news item or DESY press release do not yield results, you may be able to find the DESY Nov. 5, 2014 news release here on EurekAlert.

Journal of Responsible Innovation is launched and there’s a nanotechnology connection

According to an Oct. 30, 2013 news release from the Taylor & Francis Group, there’s a new journal being launched, which is good news for anyone looking to get their research or creative work (which retains scholarly integrity) published in a journal focused on emerging technologies and innovation,

Journal of Responsible Innovation will focus on intersections of ethics, societal outcomes, and new technologies: New to Routledge for 2014 [Note: Routledge is a Taylor & Francis Group brand]

Scholars and practitioners in the emerging interdisciplinary field known as “responsible innovation” now have a new place to publish their work. The Journal of Responsible Innovation (JRI) will offer an opportunity to articulate, strengthen, and critique perspectives about the role of responsibility in the research and development process. JRI will also provide a forum for discussions of ethical, social and governance issues that arise in a society that places a great emphasis on innovation.

Professor David Guston, director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, is the journal’s founding editor-in-chief. [emphasis mine] The Journal will publish three issues each year, beginning in early 2014.

“Responsible innovation isn’t necessarily a new concept, but a research community is forming and we’re starting to get real traction in the policy world,” says Guston. “It is our hope that the journal will help solidify what responsible innovation can mean in both academic and industrial laboratories as well as in governments.”

“Taylor & Francis have been working with the scholarly community for over two centuries and over the past 20 years, we have launched more new journals than any other publisher, all offering peer-reviewed, cutting-edge research,” adds Editorial Director Richard Steele. “We are proud to be working with David Guston and colleagues to create a lively forum in which to publish and debate research on responsible technological innovation.”

An emerging and interdisciplinary field

The term “responsible innovation” is often associated with emerging technologies—for example, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, geoengineering, and artificial intelligence—due to their uncertain but potentially revolutionary influence on society. [emphasis mine] Responsible innovation represents an attempt to think through the ethical and social complexities of these technologies before they become mainstream. And due to the broad impacts these technologies may have, responsible innovation often involves people working in a variety of roles in the innovation process.

Bearing this interdisciplinarity in mind, the Journal of Responsible Innovation (JRI) will publish not only traditional journal articles and research reports, but also reviews and perspectives on current political, technical, and cultural events. JRI will publish authors from the social sciences and the natural sciences, from ethics and engineering, and from law, design, business, and other fields. It especially hopes to see collaborations across these fields, as well.

“We want JRI to help organize a research network focused around complex societal questions,” Guston says. “Work in this area has tended to be scattered across many journals and disciplines. We’d like to bring those perspectives together and start sharing our research more effectively.”

Now accepting manuscripts

JRI is now soliciting submissions from scholars and practitioners interested in research questions and public issues related to responsible innovation. [emphasis mine] The journal seeks traditional research articles; perspectives or reviews containing opinion or critique of timely issues; and pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning responsible innovation. More information about the journal and the submission process can be found at www.tandfonline.com/tjri.

About The Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU

The Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU (CNS-ASU) is the world’s largest center on the societal aspects of nanotechnology. CNS-ASU develops programs that integrate academic and societal concerns in order to better understand how to govern new technologies, from their birth in the laboratory to their entrance into the mainstream.

About Taylor & Francis Group


Taylor & Francis Group partners with researchers, scholarly societies, universities and libraries worldwide to bring knowledge to life.  As one of the world’s leading publishers of scholarly journals, books, ebooks and reference works our content spans all areas of Humanities, Social Sciences, Behavioural Sciences, Science, and Technology and Medicine.

From our network of offices in Oxford, New York, Philadelphia, Boca Raton, Boston, Melbourne, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo, Stockholm, New Delhi and Johannesburg, Taylor & Francis staff provide local expertise and support to our editors, societies and authors and tailored, efficient customer service to our library colleagues.

You can find out more about the Journal of Responsible Innovation here, including information for would-be contributors,

JRI invites three kinds of written contributions: research articles of 6,000 to 10,000 words in length, inclusive of notes and references, that communicate original theoretical or empirical investigations; perspectives of approximately 2,000 words in length that communicate opinions, summaries, or reviews of timely issues, publications, cultural or social events, or other activities; and pedagogy, communicating in appropriate length experience in or studies of teaching, training, and learning related to responsible innovation in formal (e.g., classroom) and informal (e.g., museum) environments.

JRI is open to alternative styles or genres of writing beyond the traditional research paper or report, including creative or narrative nonfiction, dialogue, and first-person accounts, provided that scholarly completeness and integrity are retained.[emphases mine] As the journal’s online environment evolves, JRI intends to invite other kinds of contributions that could include photo-essays, videos, etc. [emphasis mine]

I like to check out the editorial board for these things (from the JRI’s Editorial board webpage; Note: Links have been removed),,


David. H. Guston , Arizona State University, USA

Associate Editors

Erik Fisher , Arizona State University, USA
Armin Grunwald , ITAS , Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany
Richard Owen , University of Exeter, UK
Tsjalling Swierstra , Maastricht University, the Netherlands
Simone van der Burg, University of Twente, the Netherlands

Editorial Board

Wiebe Bijker , University of Maastricht, the Netherlands
Francesca Cavallaro, Fundacion Tecnalia Research & Innovation, Spain
Heather Douglas , University of Waterloo, Canada
Weiwen Duan , Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China
Ulrike Felt, University of Vienna, Austria
Philippe Goujon , University of Namur, Belgium
Jonathan Hankins , Bassetti Foundation, Italy
Aharon Hauptman , University of Tel Aviv, Israel
Rachelle Hollander , National Academy of Engineering, USA
Maja Horst , University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Noela Invernizzi , Federal University of Parana, Brazil
Julian Kinderlerer , University of Cape Town, South Africa
Ralf Lindner , Frauenhofer Institut, Germany
Philip Macnaghten , Durham University, UK
Andrew Maynard , University of Michigan, USA
Carl Mitcham , Colorado School of Mines, USA
Sachin Chaturvedi , Research and Information System for Developing Countries, India
René von Schomberg, European Commission, Belgium
Doris Schroeder , University of Central Lancashire, UK
Kevin Urama , African Technology Policy Studies Network, Kenya
Frank Vanclay , University of Groningen, the Netherlands
Jeroen van den Hoven, Technical University, Delft, the Netherlands
Fern Wickson , Genok Center for Biosafety, Norway
Go Yoshizawa , Osaka University, Japan

Good luck to the publishers and to those of you who will be making submissions. As for anyone who may be as curious as I was about the connection between Routledge and Francis & Taylor, go here and scroll down about 75% of the page (briefly, Routledge is a brand).

Human enhancement, brains, and transhumanism: what does nano have to do with it?

A Sept. 14, 2011 conversation on Slate.com about Extreme Human Enhancement started with this provocative title, Should We Use Nanotech, Genetics, Pharmaceuticals, and Augmentations To Go Above and Beyond Our Biology? The official discussants are Kyle Munkittrick, Brad Allenby, and Nicholas Agar. Here’s a little more about Kyle, Brad, and Nicholas, from page one of the the Slate discussion,

Nicholas Agar is an associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He is the author, among other things, of Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement (2010) and Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement (2004).

Brad Allenby is the Lincoln professor of engineering and ethics; a professor of civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering; and the founding director of the Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management at Arizona State University. He is co-author with Daniel Sarewitz of The Techno-Human Condition.

Kyle Munkittrick is a bioethicist and a program director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. He blogs at Pop Bioethics and Discover magazine’s Science Not Fiction. [Note: I have made some formatting changes.]

Nanotechnology and the other technologies are mentioned in passing, the focus of the discussion is ‘should we or shouldn’t we enhance ourselves’ along with some comments as to whether or not humans have a biological imperative to create and apply technology to the planet and to ourselves.

This Slate discussion is a way of publicizing a Future Tense event in Washington, DC being held today, Sept. 15, 2011.

This conversation is part of a Future Tense, a partnership between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State. On Thursday, Sept. 15, Future Tense will be hosting an event in Washington, D.C., on the boundaries between humans and machines, “Is Our Techno-Human Marriage in Need of Counseling?” [I removed the RSVP]

You can watch the livestreamed event here.

Coincidentally, Brain Gear is opening today. From the host’s (University of Groningen in The Netherlands) website page,

BRAIN GEAR, A conference in Groningen on September 15 and 16.
Neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, regulators and artists discuss the available and emerging technologies to repair and enhance the brain.

Professor Andy Miah, one of the invited speakers at Brain Gear, has made his presentation, Neurodevices for the Posthuman Mind,  available for viewing at Prezi.

I find all this quite exciting given my paper, Whose electric brain? about memristors, artificial synapses, and cognitive entanglement. I have currently raised $460 towards my presentation at ISEA 2011 (International Symposium Electronic Arts). Thank you to everyone who has given funds toward my dream at DreamBank.