Category Archives: medicine

Art/science and a paintable diagnostic test for cancer

One of Joseph Cohen’s painting incorporating carbon nanotubes photographed in normal light. Photo courtesy of Joseph Cohen. [downloaded from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/carbon-nanotube-cancer-paint-1638340?utm_content=from_&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Global%20September%202%20PM&utm_term=artnet%20News%20Daily%20Newsletter%20USE%20%2830%20Day%20Engaged%20Only%29]

The artist credited with the work seen in the above, Joseph Cohen, has done something remarkable with carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Something even more remarkable than the painting as Sarah Cascone recounts in her August 30, 2019 article for artnet.com (Note: A link has been removed),

Not every artist can say that his or her work is helping in the fight against cancer. But over the past several years, Joseph Cohen has done just that, working to develop a new, high-tech paint that can be used not only on canvas, but also to detect cancers and medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.

Sloan Kettering Institute scientist Daniel Heller first suggested that Cohen come work at his lab after seeing the artist’s work, which is often made with pigments that incorporate diamond dust and gold, at the DeBuck Gallery in New York.

“We initially thought that in working with an artist, we would make art to shed a little light on our science for the public,” Heller told the Memorial Sloan Kettering blog. “But the collaboration actually taught us something that could help us shine a light on cancer.”

For Cohen, the project was initially intended to develop a new way of art-making. In Heller’s lab, he worked with carbon nanotubes, which Heller was already employing in cancer research, for their optical properties. “They fluoresce in the infrared spectrum,” Cohen says. “That gives artists the opportunity to create paintings in a new spectrum, with a whole new palette of colors.”

Because human eyesight is limited, we can’t actually see infrared fluorescence. But using a special short-wave infrared camera, Cohen is able to document otherwise invisible effects, revealing the carbon nanotube paint’s hidden colors.

“What you’re perceiving as a static painting is actually in motion,” Cohen says. “I’m creating paintings that exist outside of the visible experience.”

Art Supplies—and a Diagnostic Tool

That same imaging technique can be used by doctors looking for microalbuminuria, a condition that causes the kidneys to leak trace amounts of albumin into urine, which is an early sign of of several cancers, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Cohen helped co-author a paper published this month in Nature Communications about using the nanosensor paint in litmus paper tests with patient urine samples. The study found that the paint, when viewed through infrared light, was able to reveal the presence of albumin based on changes in the paint’s fluorescence after being exposed to the urine sample.

“It’s easy to detect albumen with a dipstick if there’s a lot of levels in the urine, but that would be like looking at stage four cancer,” Cohen says. “This is early detection.”

What’s more, a nanosensor paint can be easily used around the world, even in poor areas that don’t have access to the best diagnostic technologies. Doctors may even be able to view the urine samples using an infrared imaging attachments on their smartphones.

One of Joseph Cohen’s painting incorporating carbon nanotubes shown in both the visible light (left) and in UV fluorescence (right). Photo courtesy of Joseph Cohen. [downloaded from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/carbon-nanotube-cancer-paint-1638340?utm_content=from_&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Global%20September%202%20PM&utm_term=artnet%20News%20Daily%20Newsletter%20USE%20%2830%20Day%20Engaged%20Only%29]

Amazing, eh? If you have the time, do read Cascone’s article in its entirety and should your curiosity be insatiable, there’s also an August 22, 2019 posting by Jim Stallard on the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center blog,

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

Synthetic molecular recognition nanosensor paint for microalbuminuria by Januka Budhathoki-Uprety, Janki Shah, Joshua A. Korsen, Alysandria E. Wayne, Thomas V. Galassi, Joseph R. Cohen, Jackson D. Harvey, Prakrit V. Jena, Lakshmi V. Ramanathan, Edgar A. Jaimes & Daniel A. Heller. Nature Communicationsvolume 10, Article number: 3605 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-11583-1 Published: 09 August 2019

This paper is open access.

Joseph Cohen has graced this blog before in a May 3, 2019 posting titled, Where do I stand? a graphene artwork. It seems Cohen is very invested in using nanoscale carbon particles for his art.

First 3D heart printed using patient’s biological materials

This is very exciting news and it’s likely be at least 10 years before this technology could be made available to the public.

Caption: A 3D-printed, small-scaled human heart engineered from the patient’s own materials and cells. Credit: Advanced Science. © 2019 The Authors.

An April 15, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily makes a remarkable announcement,

In a major medical breakthrough, Tel Aviv University researchers have “printed” the world’s first 3D vascularised engineered heart using a patient’s own cells and biological materials. Their findings were published on April 15 [2019] in a study in Advanced Science.

Until now, scientists in regenerative medicine — a field positioned at the crossroads of biology and technology — have been successful in printing only simple tissues without blood vessels.

“This is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart replete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers,” says Prof. Tal Dvir of TAU’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology, who led the research for the study.

An April 15, 2019 Amricna Friends of Tel Aviv University (TAU) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States. Heart transplantation is currently the only treatment available to patients with end-stage heart failure. Given the dire shortage of heart donors, the need to develop new approaches to regenerate the diseased heart is urgent.

“This heart is made from human cells and patient-specific biological materials. In our process these materials serve as the bioinks, substances made of sugars and proteins that can be used for 3D printing of complex tissue models,” Prof. Dvir says. “People have managed to 3D-print the structure of a heart in the past, but not with cells or with blood vessels. Our results demonstrate the potential of our approach for engineering personalized tissue and organ replacement in the future.

Research for the study was conducted jointly by Prof. Dvir, Dr. Assaf Shapira of TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences and Nadav Moor, a doctoral student in Prof. Dvir’s lab.

“At this stage, our 3D heart is small, the size of a rabbit’s heart, [emphasis mine] ” explains Prof. Dvir. “But larger human hearts require the same technology.”

For the research, a biopsy of fatty tissue was taken from patients. The cellular and a-cellular materials of the tissue were then separated. While the cells were reprogrammed to become pluripotent stem cells, the extracellular matrix (ECM), a three-dimensional network of extracellular macromolecules such as collagen and glycoproteins, were processed into a personalized hydrogel that served as the printing “ink.”

After being mixed with the hydrogel, the cells were efficiently differentiated to cardiac or endothelial cells to create patient-specific, immune-compatible cardiac patches with blood vessels and, subsequently, an entire heart.

According to Prof. Dvir, the use of “native” patient-specific materials is crucial to successfully engineering tissues and organs.

“The biocompatibility of engineered materials is crucial to eliminating the risk of implant rejection, which jeopardizes the success of such treatments,” Prof. Dvir says. “Ideally, the biomaterial should possess the same biochemical, mechanical and topographical properties of the patient’s own tissues. Here, we can report a simple approach to 3D-printed thick, vascularized and perfusable cardiac tissues that completely match the immunological, cellular, biochemical and anatomical properties of the patient.”

The researchers are now planning on culturing the printed hearts in the lab and “teaching them to behave” like hearts, Prof. Dvir says. They then plan to transplant the 3D-printed heart in animal models.

“We need to develop the printed heart further,” he concludes. “The cells need to form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together. Our hope is that we will succeed and prove our method’s efficacy and usefulness.

“Maybe, in ten years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely.”

Growing the heart to human size and getting the cells to work together so the heart will pump makes it seem like the 10 years Dvir imagines as the future date when there will be organ printers in hospitals routinely printing up hearts seems a bit optimistic. Regardless, I hope he’s right. Bravo to these Israeli researchers!

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

3D Printing of Personalized Thick and Perfusable Cardiac Patches and Hearts by Nadav Noor, Assaf Shapira, Reuven Edri, Idan Gal, Lior Wertheim, Tal Dvir. Advanced Science DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/advs.201900344 First published: 15 April 2019

This paper is open access.

Breakthrough with Alpaca nanobodies

Caption: Bryson and Sanchez, two alpacas who produce unusually small antibodies. These ‘nanobodies’ could help highly promising CAR T-cell therapies kill solid tumors, where right now they work only in blood cancers. Credit: Courtesy of Boston Children’s Hospital

Bryson and Sanchez are not the first camelids to grace this blog. ‘Llam’ me lend you some antibodies—antibody particles extracted from camels and llamas, a June 12, 2014 posting, and Llama-derived nanobodies are good for solving crystal structure, a December 14, 2017 posting, both feature news about medical breakthroughs with regard to the antibodies found in Llamas, camels, and other camelids (including alpacas) could enable.

The latest camelid-oriented medical research story is in an April 11, 2019 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

In 1989, two undergraduate students at the Free University of Brussels were asked to test frozen blood serum from camels, and stumbled on a previously unknown kind of antibody. It was a miniaturized version of a human antibody, made up only of two heavy protein chains, rather than two light and two heavy chains. As they eventually reported, the antibodies’ presence was confirmed not only in camels, but also in llamas and alpacas.

Fast forward 30 years. In the journal PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Science] this week [April 8 – 12, 2019], researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] show that these mini-antibodies, shrunk further to create so-called nanobodies, may help solve a problem in the cancer field: making CAR T-cell therapies work in solid tumors.

An April 11, 2019 Boston Children’s Hospital news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, explores the technology,

Highly promising for blood cancers, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy genetically engineers a patient’s own T cells to make them better at attacking cancer cells. The Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center is currently using CAR T-cell therapy for relapsed acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), for example.

But CAR T cells haven’t been good at eliminating solid tumors. It’s been hard to find cancer-specific proteins on solid tumors that could serve as safe targets. Solid tumors are also protected by an extracellular matrix, a supportive web of proteins that acts as a barrier, as well as immunosuppressive molecules that weaken the T-cell attack.

Rethinking CAR T cells

That’s where nanobodies come in. For two decades, they largely remained in the hands of the Belgian team. But that changed after the patent expired in 2013. [emphases mine]

“A lot of people got into the game and began to appreciate nanobodies’ unique properties,” says Hidde Ploegh, PhD, an immunologist in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s and senior investigator on the PNAS study.

One useful attribute is their enhanced targeting abilities. Ploegh and his team at Boston Children’s, in collaboration with Noo Jalikhani, PhD, and Richard Hynes, PhD at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, have harnessed nanobodies to carry imaging agents, allowing precise visualization of metastatic cancers.

The Hynes team targeted the nanobodies to the tumors’ extracellular matrix, or ECM — aiming imaging agents not at the cancer cells themselves, but at the environment that surrounds them. Such markers are common to many tumors, but don’t typically appear on normal cells.

“Our lab and the Hynes lab are among the few actively pursuing this approach of targeting the tumor micro-environment,” says Ploegh. “Most labs are looking for tumor-specific antigens.”

Targeting tumor protectors

Ploegh’s lab took this idea to CAR T-cell therapy. His team, including members of the Hynes lab, took aim at the very factors that make solid tumors difficult to treat.

The CAR T cells they created were studded with nanobodies that recognize specific proteins in the tumor environment, bearing signals directing them to kill any cell they bound to. One protein, EIIIB, a variant of fibronectin, is found only on newly formed blood vessels that supply tumors with nutrients. Another, PD-L1, is an immunosuppressive protein that most cancers use to silence approaching T cells.

Biochemist Jessica Ingram, PhD of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Ploegh’s partner and a coauthor on the paper, led the manufacturing pipeline. She would drive to Amherst, Mass., to gather T cells from two alpacas, Bryson and Sanchez, inject them with the antigen of interest and harvest their blood for further processing back in Boston to generate mini-antibodies.

Taking down melanoma and colon cancer

Tested in two separate melanoma mouse models, as well as a colon adenocarcinoma model in mice, the nanobody-based CAR T cells killed tumor cells, significantly slowed tumor growth and improved the animals’ survival, with no readily apparent side effects.

Ploegh thinks that the engineered T cells work through a combination of factors. They caused damage to tumor tissue, which tends to stimulate inflammatory immune responses. Targeting EIIIB may damage blood vessels in a way that decreases blood supply to tumors, while making them more permeable to cancer drugs.

“If you destroy the local blood supply and cause vascular leakage, you could perhaps improve the delivery of other things that might have a harder time getting in,” says Ploegh. “I think we should look at this as part of a combination therapy.”

Future directions

Ploegh thinks his team’s approach could be useful in many solid tumors. He’s particularly interested in testing nanobody-based CAR T cells in models of pancreatic cancer and cholangiocarcinoma, a bile duct cancer from which Ingram passed away in 2018.

The technology itself can be pushed even further, says Ploegh.

“Nanobodies could potentially carry a cytokine to boost the immune response to the tumor, toxic molecules that kill tumor and radioisotopes to irradiate the tumor at close range,” he says. “CAR T cells are the battering ram that would come in to open the door; the other elements would finish the job. In theory, you could equip a single T cell with multiple chimeric antigen receptors and achieve even more precision. That’s something we would like to pursue.”

So, the Belgian researchers have a patent for two decades and, after it expires, more researchers could help to take the work further. Hmm …

Moving on, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nanobody-based CAR T cells that target the tumor microenvironment inhibit the growth of solid tumors in immunocompetent mice by Yushu Joy Xie, Michael Dougan, Noor Jailkhani, Jessica Ingram, Tao Fang, Laura Kummer, Noor Momin, Novalia Pishesha, Steffen Rickelt, Richard O. Hynes, and Hidde Ploegh. PNAS DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1817147116
First published April 1, 2019

This paper is behind a paywall

Cyborg organoids?

Every time I think I’ve become inured to the idea of a fuzzy boundary between life and nonlife something new crosses my path such as integrating nanoelectronics with cells for cyborg organoids. An August 9, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily makes the announcement,

What happens in the early days of organ development? How do a small group of cells organize to become a heart, a brain, or a kidney? This critical period of development has long remained the black box of developmental biology, in part because no sensor was small or flexible enough to observe this process without damaging the cells.

Now, researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have grown simplified organs known as organoids with fully integrated sensors. These so-called cyborg organoids offer a rare glimpse into the early stages of organ development.

An August 8, 2019 Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences news release (also on EurekAlert but published August 9, 2019) by Leah Burrows, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“I was so inspired by the natural organ development process in high school, in which 3D organs start from few cells in 2D structures. I think if we can develop nanoelectronics that are so flexible, stretchable, and soft that they can grow together with developing tissue through their natural development process, the embedded sensors can measure the entire activity of this developmental process,” said Jia Liu, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS and senior author of the study. “The end result is a piece of tissue with a nanoscale device completely distributed and integrated across the entire three-dimensional volume of the tissue.”

This type of device emerges from the work that Liu began as a graduate student in the lab of Charles M. Lieber, the Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor. In Lieber’s lab, Liu once developed flexible, mesh-like nanoelectronics that could be injected in specific regions of tissue.

Building on that design, Liu and his team increased the stretchability of the nanoelectronics by changing the shape of the mesh from straight lines to serpentine structures (similar structures are used in wearable electronics). Then, the team transferred the mesh nanoelectronics onto a 2D sheet of stem cells, where the cells covered and interwove with the nanoelectronics via cell-cell attraction forces. As the stem cells began to morph into a 3D structure, the nanoelectronics seamlessly reconfigured themselves along with the cells, resulting in fully-grown 3D organoids with embedded sensors.

The stem cells were then differentiated into cardiomyocytes — heart cells — and the researchers were able to monitor and record the electrophysiological activity for 90 days.

“This method allows us to continuously monitor the developmental process and understand how the dynamics of individual cells start to interact and synchronize during the entire developmental process,” said Liu. “It could be used to turn any organoid into cyborg organoids, including brain and pancreas organoids.”

In addition to helping answer fundamental questions about biology, cyborg organoids could be used to test and monitor patient-specific drug treatments and potentially used for transplantations.

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

Cyborg Organoids: Implantation of Nanoelectronics via Organogenesis for Tissue-Wide Electrophysiology by Qiang Li, Kewang Nan, Paul Le Floch, Zuwan Lin, Hao Sheng, Thomas S. Blum, Jia Liu. Nano Lett.20191985781-5789 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.9b02512 Publication Date:July 26, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cyborgs based on melanin circuits

Pigments for biocompatible electronics? According to a March 26, 2019 news item on Nanowerk this is a distinct possibility (Note: A link has been removed),

The dark brown melanin pigment, eumelanin, colors hair and eyes, and protects our skin from sun damage. It has also long been known to conduct electricity, but too little for any useful application – until now.

In a landmark study published in Frontiers in Chemistry (“Evidence of Unprecedented High Electronic Conductivity in Mammalian Pigment Based Eumelanin Thin Films After Thermal Annealing in Vacuum”), Italian researchers subtly modified the structure of eumelanin by heating it in a vacuum.

“Our process produced a billion-fold increase in the electrical conductivity of eumelanin,” say study senior authors Dr. Alessandro Pezzella of University of Naples Federico II and Dr. Paolo Tassini of Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development. “This makes possible the long-anticipated design of melanin-based electronics, which can be used for implanted devices due to the pigment’s biocompatibility.”

This is a rather dreamy image to illustrate the point,

Despite extensive research on the structure of melanin, nobody has yet managed to harness its potential in implantable electronics. Image: Shutterstock. [downloaded from https://blog.frontiersin.org/2019/03/26/will-cyborgs-circuits-be-made-from-melanin/]

A March 26, 2019 Frontiers in Chemistry (journal) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

A young Pezzella had not even begun school when scientists first discovered that a type of melanin can conduct electricity. Excitement quickly rose around the discovery because eumelanin – the dark brown pigment found in hair, skin and eyes – is fully biocompatible.

“Melanins occur naturally in virtually all forms of life. They are non-toxic and do not elicit an immune reaction,” explains Pezzella. “Out in the environment, they are also completely biodegradable.”

Decades later, and despite extensive research on the structure of melanin, nobody has managed to harness its potential in implantable electronics.

“To date, conductivity of synthetic as well as natural eumelanin has been far too low for valuable applications,” he adds.

Some researchers tried to increase the conductivity of eumelanin by combining it with metals, or super-heating it into a graphene-like material – but what they were left with was not truly the biocompatible conducting material promised.

Determined to find the real deal, the Neapolitan group considered the structure of eumelanin.

“All of the chemical and physical analyses of eumelanin paint the same picture – of electron-sharing molecular sheets, stacked messily together. The answer seemed obvious: neaten the stacks and align the sheets, so they can all share electrons – then the electricity will flow.”

This process, called annealing, is used already to increase electrical conductivity and other properties in materials such as metals.

For the first time, the researchers put films of synthetic eumelanin through an annealing process under high vacuum to neaten them up – a little like hair straightening, but with only the pigment.

“We heated these eumelanin films – no thicker than a bacterium – under vacuum conditions, from 30 min up to 6 hours,” describes Tassini. “We call the resulting material High Vacuum Annealed Eumelanin, HVAE.”

The annealing worked wonders for eumelanin: the films slimmed down by more than half, and picked up quite a tan.

“The HVAE films were now dark brown and about as thick as a virus,” Tassini reports.

Crucially, the films had not simply been burnt to a crisp.

“All our various analyses agree that these changes reflect reorganization of eumelanin molecules from a random orientation to a uniform, electron-sharing stack. The annealing temperatures were too low to break up the eumelanin, and we detected no combustion to elemental carbon.”

Having achieved the intended structural changes to eumelanin, the researchers proved their hypothesis in spectacular fashion.

“The conductivity of the films increased billion-fold to an unprecedented value of over 300 S/cm, after annealing at 600°C for 2 hours,” Pezzella confirms.

Although well short of most metal conductors – copper has a conductivity of around 6 x 107 S/cm – this finding launches eumelanin well into a useful range for bioelectronics.

What’s more, the conductivity of HVAE was tunable according to the annealing conditions.

“The conductivity of the films increased with increasing temperature, from 1000-fold at 200°C. This opens the possibility of tailoring eumelanin for a wide range of applications in organic electronics and bioelectronics. It also strongly supports the conclusion from structural analysis that annealing reorganized the films, rather than burning them.”

There is one potential dampener: immersion of the films in water results in a marked decrease in conductivity.

“This contrasts with untreated eumelanin which, albeit in a much lower range, becomes more conductive with hydration (humidity) because it conducts electricity via ions as well as electrons. Further research is needed to fully understand the ionic vs. electronic contributions in eumelanin conductivity, which could be key to how eumelanin is used practically in implantable electronics.” concludes Pezzella.

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

Evidence of Unprecedented High Electronic Conductivity in Mammalian Pigment Based Eumelanin Thin Films After Thermal Annealing in Vacuum by Ludovico Migliaccio, Paola Manini, Davide Altamura, Cinzia Giannini, Paolo Tassini, Maria Grazia Maglione, Carla Minarini, and Alessandro Pezzella. Front. Chem., 26 March 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fchem.2019.00162

This paper is open access.

Canadian researchers develop bone implant material from cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) while Russian scientists restore internal structure of bone with polycaprolactone nanofibers

Two research groups are working to the same end where bone marrow is concerned, encourage bone cell growth, but they are using different strategies.

University of British Columbia and McMaster University (Canada)

Caption: Researchers treated nanocrystals derived from plant cellulose so that they can link up and form a strong but lightweight sponge (an aerogel) that can compress or expand as needed to completely fill out a bone cavity. Credit: Clare Kiernan, UBC

The samples look a little like teeth, don’t they?

Before diving into the research news, there’s a terminology issue that should be noted as you’ll see when you read the news/press releases. Nanocrystal cellulose/nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) is a term coined by Canadian researchers. Since those early day, most researchers, internationally, have adopted the term cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) as the standard term. It fits better with the naming conventions for other nnanocellulose materials such as cellulose nanofibrils, etc. By the way, a Canadian company (CelluForce) that produces CNC retained the term nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) as a trademark for the product, CelluForce NCC®.

For anyone not familiar with aerogels, what the University of British Columbia (UBC) and McMaster University researchers are developing, are also popularly known known as ‘frozen smoke’ (see the Aerogel Wikipedia entry for more).

A March 19, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces the research,

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and McMaster University have developed what could be the bone implant material of the future: an airy, foamlike substance that can be injected into the body and provide scaffolding for the growth of new bone.

It’s made by treating nanocrystals derived from plant cellulose so that they link up and form a strong but lightweight sponge — technically speaking, an aerogel — that can compress or expand as needed to completely fill out a bone cavity.

A March 19, 2019 UBC news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

“Most bone graft or implants are made of hard, brittle ceramic that doesn’t always conform to the shape of the hole, and those gaps can lead to poor growth of the bone and implant failure,” said study author Daniel Osorio, a PhD student in chemical engineering at McMaster. “We created this cellulose nanocrystal aerogel as a more effective alternative to these synthetic materials.”

For their research, the team worked with two groups of rats, with the first group receiving the aerogel implants and the second group receiving none. Results showed that the group with implants saw 33 per cent more bone growth at the three-week mark and 50 per cent more bone growth at the 12-week mark, compared to the controls.

“These findings show, for the first time in a lab setting, that a cellulose nanocrystal aerogel can support new bone growth,” said study co-author Emily Cranston, a professor of wood science and chemical and biological engineering who holds the President’s Excellence Chair in Forest Bio-products at UBC. She added that the implant should break down into non-toxic components in the body as the bone starts to heal.

The innovation can potentially fill a niche in the $2-billion bone graft market in North America, said study co-author Kathryn Grandfield, a professor of materials science and engineering, and biomedical engineering at McMaster who supervised the work.

“We can see this aerogel being used for a number of applications including dental implants and spinal and joint replacement surgeries,” said Grandfield. “And it will be economical because the raw material, the nanocellulose, is already being produced in commercial quantities.”

The researchers say it will be some time before the aerogel makes it out of the lab and into the operating room.

“This summer, we will study the mechanisms between the bone and implant that lead to bone growth,” said Grandfield. “We’ll also look at how the implant degrades using advanced microscopes. After that, more biological testing will be required before it is ready for clinical trials.”

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

Cross-linked cellulose nanocrystal aerogels as viable bone tissue scaffolds by Daniel A. Osorio, Bryan E. J. Lee, Jacek M. Kwiecien, Xiaoyue Wang, Iflah Shahid, Ariana L. Hurley, Emily D. Cranston and Kathryn Grandfield. Acta Biomaterialia Volume 87, 15 March 2019, Pages 152-165 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actbio.2019.01.049

This paper is behind a paywall

Now for the Russian team.

National University of Science and Technology “MISIS” (formerly part of the Moscow Mining Academy)

These scientists have adopted a different strategy as you’ll see in the March 19, 2019 news item on Nanwerk, which, coincidentally, was published on the same day as the Canadian research,

Scientists from the National University of Science and Technology “MISIS” developed a nanomaterial, which will be able to rstore the internal structure of bones damaged due to osteoporosis and osteomyelitis. A special bioactive coating of the material helped to increase the rate of division of bone cells by 3 times. In the future, it can allow to abandon bone marrow transplantation and patients will no longer need to wait for suitable donor material.

A March 19, 2019 National University of Science and Technology (MISIS) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides detail about the impetus for the research and the technique being developed,

Such diseases as osteoporosis and osteomyelitis cause irreversible degenerative changes in the bone structure. Such diseases require serious complex treatment and surgery and transplantation of the destroyed bone marrow in severe stages. Donor material should have a number of compatibility indicators and even close relationship with the donor cannot guarantee full compatibility.

Research group from the National University of Science and Technology “MISIS” (NUST MISIS), led by Anton Manakhov (Laboratory for Inorganic Nanomaterials) developed material that will allow to restore damaged internal bone structure without bone marrow transplantation.
It is based on nanofibers of polycaprolactone, which is biocompatible self-dissolvable material. Earlier, the same research group has already worked with this material: by adding antibiotics to the nanofibers, scientists have managed to create non-changeable healing bandages.

“If we want the implant to take, not only biocompatibility is needed, but also activation of the natural cell growth on the surface of the material. Polycaprolactone as such is a hydrophobic material, meaning, and cells feel uncomfortable on its surface. They gather on the smooth surface and divide extremely slow”, Elizaveta Permyakova, one of the co-authors and researcher at NUST MISIS Laboratory for Inorganic Nanomaterials, explains.

To increase the hydrophilicity of the material, a thin layer of bioactive film consisting of titanium, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen (TiCaPCON) was deposited on it. The structure of nanofibers identical to the cell surface was preserved. These films, when immersed in a special salt medium, which chemical composition is identical to human blood plasma, are able to form on its surface a special layer of calcium and phosphorus, which in natural conditions forms the main part of the bone. Due to the chemical similarity and the structure of nanofibers, new bone tissue begins to grow rapidly on this layer. Most importantly, polycaprolactone nanofibers dissolve, having fulfilled their functions. Only new “native” tissue remains in the bone.

In the experimental part of the study, the researchers compared the rate of division of osteoblastic bone cells on the surface of the modified and unmodified material. It was found that the modified material TiCaPCON has a high hydrophilicity. In contrast to the unmodified material, the cells on its surface felt clearly more comfortable, and divided three times faster.

According to scientists, such results open up great prospects for further work with modified polycaprolactone nanofibers as an alternative to bone marrow transplantation.

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

Bioactive TiCaPCON-coated PCL nanofibers as a promising material for bone tissue engineering by Anton Manakhov, Elizaveta S. Permyakova, Sergey Ershov, Alexander Sheveyko, Andrey Kovalskii, Josef Polčák, Irina Y. Zhitnyak, Natalia A. Gloushankova, Lenka Zajíčková, Dmitry V. Shtansky. Applied Surface Science Volume 479, 15 June 2019, Pages 796-802 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apsusc.2019.02.163

This paper is behind a paywall.

A nanocomposite biomaterial heart valve from the University of British Columbia (Canada)

I wish the folks at the University of British Columbia (UBC) would include more technical/scientific information in their news releases about research. For those who do like a little more technical information, I included the paper’s abstract at the end of this post.

A March 25, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily trumpets the UBC (Okanagan campus) research,

Researchers at UBC have created the first-ever nanocomposite biomaterial heart-valve developed to reduce or eliminate complications related to heart transplants.

By using a newly developed technique, the researchers were able to build a more durable valve that enables the heart to adapt faster and more seamlessly.

A March 25, 2019 UBC news release (also on EurekAlert) by Patty Wellborn, which originated the news item, gives an accessible description of the ‘new’ valve,

Assistant Professor Hadi Mohammadi runs the Heart Valve Performance Laboratory (HVPL) through UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering. Lead author on the study, he says the newly developed valve is an example of a transcatheter heart valve, a promising new branch of cardiology. These valves are unique because they can be inserted into a patient through small incisions rather than opening a patient’s chest–a procedure that is generally safer and much less invasive.

“Existing transcatheter heart valves are made of animal tissues, most often the pericardium membrane from a cow’s heart, and have had only moderate success to date,” explains Mohammadi. “The problem is that they face significant implantation risks and can lead to coronary obstruction and acute kidney injury.”

The new valve solves that problem by using naturally derived nanocomposites–a material assembled with a variety of very small components–including gels, vinyl and cellulose. The combination of their new material with the non-invasive nature of transcatheter heart valves makes this new design very promising for use with high-risk patients, according to Mohammadi.

“Not only is the material important but the design and construction of our valve means that it lowers stress on the valve by as much as 40 per cent compared to valves currently available,” says Dylan Goode, a graduate researcher at the HVPL. “It is uniquely manufactured in one continuous form, so it gains strength and flexibility to withstand the circulatory complications that can arise following transplantation.”

Working with researchers from Kelowna General Hospital and Western University, the valve will now undergo vigorous testing to perfect its material composition and design. The testing will include human heart simulators and large animal in-vivo studies. If successful, the valve will then proceed to clinical patient testing.

“This has the potential to become the new standard in heart valve replacement and to provide a safer, longer-term solution for many patients.”

The new design was highlighted in a paper published this month in the Journal of Engineering in Medicine with financial support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada [NSERC] .

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

Proposed percutaneous aortic valve prosthesis made of cryogel by Hadi Mohammadi, Dylan Goode, Guy Fradet, Kibret Mequanint. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part H: Journal of Engineering in Medicine, 2019; 095441191983730 DOI: 10.1177/0954411919837302 First Published March 20, 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

As promised, here’s the abstract,

Transcatheter heart valves are promising for high-risk patients. Generally, their leaflets are made of pericardium stented in a Nitinol basket. Despite their relative success, they are associated with significant complications such as valve migration, implantation risks, stroke, coronary obstruction, myocardial infraction, acute kidney injury (which all are due to the release of detached solid calcific pieces in to the blood stream) and expected issues existing with tissue valves such as leaflet calcification. This study is an attempt to fabricate the first ever polymeric percutaneous valves made of cryogel following the geometry and mechanical properties of porcine aortic valve to address some of the above-mentioned shortcomings. A novel, one-piece, tricuspid percutaneous valve, consisting of leaflets made entirely from the hydrogel, polyvinyl alcohol cryogel reinforced by bacterial cellulose natural nanocomposite, attached to a Nitinol basket was developed and demonstrated. Following the natural geometry of the valve, a novel approach was applied based on the revolution about an axis of a hyperboloid shape. The geometry was modified based on avoiding sharp warpage of leaflets and removal of the central opening orifice area of the valve when valve is fully closed using the finite element analysis. The modified geometry was replaced by a cloud of (control) points and was essentially converted to Bezier surfaces for further adjustment. A cavity mold was then designed and fabricated to form the valve. The fabricated valve was sewn into the Nitinol basket which is covered by Dacron cloth. The models presented in this study merit further development and revisions for both aortic and mitral positions.

So, this new valve partially consists of bacterial cellulose and the design is based on porcine (pig) valves. Cellulose is the most abundant organic material on earth and if it forms part of the nanocomposite, I’d expect to see the word ‘nanocellulose’ mentioned somewhere. What puzzles me is the ‘bacterial cellulose’, a term that is unfamiliar to me. Anyone who cares to clarify the matter for me, please feel free to leave a comment.

Regarding the pig valve, I understand that heart patients who require valves have a choice of a pig valve or a mechanical valve. Apparently, people with porcine valves don’t need to take drugs to counteract rejection amongst other advantages but the valves do have a shorter life span (10 to 15 years) in addition to the other shortcomings mentioned in the abstract.

Assuming I properly understand the abstract, this ‘nanocomposite’ valve could combine the advantages of the mechanical and porcine valves while offering more durability than either one.

Again, should anyone care to increase my understanding of the valves and the advantages of this new one, please do leave a comment.

An art/science and a science event in Vancouver (Canada)

We’re closing off August 2019 with a couple of talks, Curiosity Collider features an art/science event and Café Scientifique features a discussion about protease research.

Collider Café: Art. Science. Hybrids. on August 21, 2019

From an August 14, 2019 Curiosity Collider announcement (received via email),

How can the hybrids of scientific studies and artistic practices – embroidery, botanical art, projection sculpture, and video storytelling – spark creativity and discoveries?

Our #ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science to meet, discover, and connect.

Are you curious? Join us at “Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Hybrids.” to explore how art and science intersect in the exploration of curiosity.

When: 8:00pm on Wednesday, August 21, 2019. Doors open at 7:30pm.
Where: Pizzeria Barbarella. 654 E Broadway, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).
Cost: $5-10 (sliding scale) cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events.

//Special thanks to Pizzeria Barbarella for hosting the upcoming Collider Cafe!//

With speakers: Heather Talbot (ecosystem, embroidery and felt art): Studying complex systems with thread
Katrina Vera Wong (botanical and climate research informed art): Flower Power
Kat Wadel (projection sculpture & plastic waste): Polymer Legacy
Lucas Kavanagh & Jesse Lupini; Avocado Video (science communication & video storytelling): Experiments in Digital Scientific Storytelling
Head to the Facebook event page – let us know you are coming and share this event with others! Follow updates on Instagram via @curiositycollider or #ColliderCafe. 
Looking for more Art+Science in Vancouver?

September 13, 14 We are excited to announce events for Her Story: Canadian Women Scientists, a film series dedicated to sharing the stories of Canadian women scientists. We will be hosting two screening events in September at the Annex. Get your tickets now!
August 15 Explore our relationships with waterways across Metro Vancouver at Living Legends of Vancouver: a premiere screening of short videos by students from the Emily Carr. This screening will be hosted by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum (admission by donation), and intermixed with interactive presentations and dialogue led by the artists. 
August 28 Our friends at Nerd Nite Vancouver is hosting Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies at the VIFF. The next event will focus on evolution. The event will be followed by a screening of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. Get tickets now!
Until September 29  New Media Gallery presents Winds, where artists explore how our perception and understanding of landscape can be interpreted through technology.  
Until November 10 CC friend Katrina Vera Wong (also speaker for Collider Cafe!), and Julya Hajnoczky will present their exhibition Closer at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Using different approaches – Hajnoczky with high-resolution still life photographs and Wong with sections of pressed or dried plants – both artists explore the enchanting world of the often overlooked in this unique joint exhibition

For more Vancouver art+science events, visit the Curiosity Collider events calendar.

Café Scientifique: From tadpole tails to diagnosing disease – the evolution of protease research, August 27, 2019

From an August 14, 2019 Café Scientifique announcement (received via email),

Our next café will happen on Tuesday, August 27th at 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be  Dr. Georgina Butler from the Centre for Blood Research at UBC [University of British Columbia].


From tadpole tails to diagnosing disease – the evolution of protease research  
 
Proteases are enzymes that cut other proteins. Humans have 560 different proteases – why so many? what are they doing? We know that too much protease activity can be detrimental in diseases such as cancer and arthritis, but failed efforts to stop cancer spread by blocking proteases has contributed to the realization that some cuts are essential. In the era of “big data”, at UBC we have developed new techniques (degradomics) to study proteases on a global scale to determine what they really do in health and disease. Hopefully this information will enable us to identify new drug targets as well as novel biomarkers to diagnose or monitor disease.

Dr. Butler completed her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry (with Studies in Italy) at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and her PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Leicester in the UK. She came to UBC as a Wellcome Trust Travelling Fellow in 1999 for 2 years. Still here, she is a Research Associate at the Centre for Blood Research and in Oral, Biological and Medical Sciences at UBC, where she studies novel roles of proteases in health and disease. 

We hope to see you there!

Your Café Sci Vancouver Organizers

You can find Dr. Butler’s UBC profile page here.

Cooking up a lung one way or the other

I have two stories about lungs and they are entirely different with the older one being a bioengineering story from the US and the more recent one being an artificial tissue story from the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa (both in Canada).

Lab grown lungs

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quirks and Quarks radio programme posted a December 29, 2018 news item (with embedded radio files) about bioengineered lunjgs,

There are two major components to building an organ: the structure and the right cells on that structure. A team led by Dr. Joan Nichols, a Professor of Internal Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, were able to tackle both parts of the problem

In their experiment they used a donor organ for the structure. They took a lung from an unrelated pig, and stripped it of its cells, leaving a scaffold of collagen, a tough, flexible protein.  This provided a pre-made appropriate structure, though in future they think it may be possible to use 3-D printing technology to get the same result.

They then added cultured cells from the animal who would be receiving the transplant – so the lung was made of the animal’s own cells. Cultured lung and blood vessel cells were placed on the scaffold and it was  placed in a tank for 30 days with a cocktail of nutrients to help the cells stick to the scaffold and proliferate. The result was a kind of baby lung.

They then transplanted the bio-engineered, though immature, lung into the recipient animal where they hoped it would continue to develop and mature – growing to become a healthy, functioning organ.

The recipients of the bio-engineered lungs were four pigs adult pigs, which appeared to tolerate the transplants well. In order to study the development of the bio-engineered lungs, they euthanized the animals at different times: 10 hours, two weeks, one month and two months after transplantation.

They found that as early as two weeks, the bio-engineered lung had integrated into the recipient animals’ body, building a strong network of blood vessels essential for the lung to survive. There was no evidence of pulmonary edema, the build of fluid in the lungs, which is usually a sign of the blood vessels not working efficiently.  There was no sign of rejection of the transplanted organs, and the pigs were healthy up to the point where they were euthanized.

One lingering concern is how well the bio-engineered lungs delivered oxygen. The four pigs who received the trasplant [sic] had one original functioning lung, so they didn’t depend on their new bio-engineered lung for breathing. The scientists were not sure that the bio-engineered lung was mature enough to handle the full load of oxygen on its own.

You can hear Bob McDonald’s (host of Quirks & Quarks, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation science radio programme) interview lead scientist, Dr. Joan Nichols if you go to here. (Note: I find he overmodulates his voice but some may find he has a ‘friendly’ voice.)

This is an image of the lung scaffold produced by the team,

Lung scaffold in the bioreactor chamber on Day 1 of the experiment, before the cells from the study pig were added. (Credit: Joan Nichols) [downloaded from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/dec-29-2018-water-on-mars-lab-grown-lungs-and-more-the-biggest-science-stories-of-2018-1.4940811/lab-grown-lungs-are-transplanted-in-pigs-today-they-may-help-humans-tomorrow-1.4940822]

Here’s more technical detail in an August 1, 2018i University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originally announced the research,

A research team at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have bioengineered lungs and transplanted them into adult pigs with no medical complication.

In 2014, Joan Nichols and Joaquin Cortiella from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston were the first research team to successfully bioengineer human lungs in a lab. In a paper now available in Science Translational Medicine, they provide details of how their work has progressed from 2014 to the point no complications have occurred in the pigs as part of standard preclinical testing.

“The number of people who have developed severe lung injuries has increased worldwide, while the number of available transplantable organs have decreased,” said Cortiella, professor of pediatric anesthesia. “Our ultimate goal is to eventually provide new options for the many people awaiting a transplant,” said Nichols, professor of internal medicine and associate director of the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB.

To produce a bioengineered lung, a support scaffold is needed that meets the structural needs of a lung. A support scaffold was created using a lung from an unrelated animal that was treated using a special mixture of sugar and detergent to eliminate all cells and blood in the lung, leaving only the scaffolding proteins or skeleton of the lung behind. This is a lung-shaped scaffold made totally from lung proteins.

The cells used to produce each bioengineered lung came from a single lung removed from each of the study animals. This was the source of the cells used to produce a tissue-matched bioengineered lung for each animal in the study. The lung scaffold was placed into a tank filled with a carefully blended cocktail of nutrients and the animals’ own cells were added to the scaffold following a carefully designed protocol or recipe. The bioengineered lungs were grown in a bioreactor for 30 days prior to transplantation. Animal recipients were survived for 10 hours, two weeks, one month and two months after transplantation, allowing the research team to examine development of the lung tissue following transplantation and how the bioengineered lung would integrate with the body.

All of the pigs that received a bioengineered lung stayed healthy. As early as two weeks post-transplant, the bioengineered lung had established the strong network of blood vessels needed for the lung to survive.

“We saw no signs of pulmonary edema, which is usually a sign of the vasculature not being mature enough,” said Nichols and Cortiella. “The bioengineered lungs continued to develop post-transplant without any infusions of growth factors, the body provided all of the building blocks that the new lungs needed.”

Nichols said that the focus of the study was to learn how well the bioengineered lung adapted and continued to mature within a large, living body. They didn’t evaluate how much the bioengineered lung provided oxygenation to the animal.

“We do know that the animals had 100 percent oxygen saturation, as they had one normal functioning lung,” said Cortiella. “Even after two months, the bioengineered lung was not yet mature enough for us to stop the animal from breathing on the normal lung and switch to just the bioengineered lung.”

For this reason, future studies will look at long-term survival and maturation of the tissues as well as gas exchange capability.

The researchers said that with enough funding, they could grow lungs to transplant into people in compassionate use circumstances within five to 10 years.

“It has taken a lot of heart and 15 years of research to get us this far, our team has done something incredible with a ridiculously small budget and an amazingly dedicated group of people,” Nichols and Cortiella said.

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

Production and transplantation of bioengineered lung into a large-animal model by Joan E. Nichols, Saverio La Francesca, Jean A. Niles, Stephanie P. Vega, Lissenya B. Argueta, Luba Frank, David C. Christiani, Richard B. Pyles, Blanca E. Himes, Ruyang Zhang, Su Li, Jason Sakamoto, Jessica Rhudy, Greg Hendricks, Filippo Begarani, Xuewu Liu, Igor Patrikeev, Rahul Pal, Emiliya Usheva, Grace Vargas, Aaron Miller, Lee Woodson, Adam Wacher, Maria Grimaldo, Daniil Weaver, Ron Mlcak, and Joaquin Cortiella. Science Translational Medicine 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 10, Issue 452, eaao3926 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aao3926

This paper is behind a paywall.

Artificial lung cancer tissue

The research teams at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa worked on creating artificial lung tissue but other applications are possible too. First, there’s the announcement in a February 25, 2019 news item on phys.org,

A 3-D hydrogel created by researchers in U of T Engineering Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab is helping University of Ottawa researchers to quickly screen hundreds of potential drugs for their ability to fight highly invasive cancers.

Cell invasion is a critical hallmark of metastatic cancers, such as certain types of lung and brain cancer. Fighting these cancers requires therapies that can both kill cancer cells as well as prevent cell invasion of healthy tissue. Today, most cancer drugs are only screened for their ability to kill cancer cells.

“In highly invasive diseases, there is a crucial need to screen for both of these functions,” says Shoichet. “We now have a way to do this.”

A February 25, 2019 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more detail ,

In their latest research, the team used hydrogels to mimic the environment of lung cancer, selectively allowing cancer cells, and not healthy cells, to invade. In their latest research, the team used hydrogels to mimic the environment of lung cancer, selectively allowing cancer cells, and not healthy cells, to invade. This emulated environment enabled their collaborators in Professor Bill Stanford’s lab at University of Ottawa to screen for both cancer-cell growth and invasion. The study, led by Roger Y. Tam, a research associate in Shochet’s lab, was recently published in Advanced Materials.

“We can conduct this in a 384-well plate, which is no bigger than your hand. And with image-analysis software, we can automate this method to enable quick, targeted screenings for hundreds of potential cancer treatments,” says Shoichet.

One example is the researchers’ drug screening for lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare lung disease affecting women. Shoichet and her team were inspired by the work of Green Eggs and LAM, a Toronto-based organization raising awareness of the disease.

Using their hydrogels, they were able to automate and screen more than 800 drugs, thereby uncovering treatments that could target disease growth and invasion.

In the ongoing collaboration, the researchers plan to next screen multiple drugs at different doses to gain greater insight into new treatment methods for LAM. The strategies and insights they gain could also help identify new drugs for other invasive cancers.

Shoichet, who was recently named a Distinguished Woman in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering, also plans to patent the hydrogel technology.

“This has, and continues to be, a great collaboration that is advancing knowledge at the intersection of engineering and biology,” says Shoichet.

I note that Shoichet (pronounced ShoyKet) is getting ready to patent this work. I do have a question about this and it’s not up to Shoichet to answer as she didn’t create the system. Will the taxpayers who funded her work receive any financial benefits should the hydrogel prove to be successful or will we be paying double, both supporting her research and paying for the hydrogel through our healthcare costs?

Getting back to the research, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rationally Designed 3D Hydrogels Model Invasive Lung Diseases Enabling High‐Content Drug Screening by Roger Y. Tam, Julien Yockell‐Lelièvre, Laura J. Smith, Lisa M. Julian, Alexander E. G. Baker, Chandarong Choey, Mohamed S. Hasim, Jim Dimitroulakos, William L. Stanford, Molly S. Shoichet. Advanced Materials Volume 31, Issue 7 February 15, 2019 1806214 First published online: 27 December 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201806214

This paper is behind a paywall.

Harvesting bioenergy to cure wounds and control weight

I’m always a sucker for bioenergy harvesting stories but this is the first time I’ve seen research on the topic which combines weight control with wound healing. From a January 17, 2019 news item on Nanowerk,


Although electrical stimulation has therapeutic potential for various disorders and conditions, ungainly power sources have hampered practical applications. Now bioengineers have developed implantable and wearable nanogenerators from special materials that create electrical pulses when compressed by body motions. The pulses controlled weight gain and enhanced healing of skin wounds in rat models.

The work was performed by a research team led by Xudong Wang, Ph.D., Professor of Material Sciences and Engineering, College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and supported by the [US Dept. of Health, National Institutes of Health] National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).

A January 17, 2019 NIBIB news release, which originated the news item, provides more technical information (Note: Links have been removed),

The researchers used what are known as piezoelectric and dielectric materials, including ceramics and crystals, which have a special property of creating an electrical charge in response to mechanical stress.

“Wang and colleagues have engineered solutions to a number of technical hurdles to create piezoelectric and dielectric materials that are compatible with body tissues and can generate a reliable, self-sufficient power supply. Their meticulous work has enabled a simple and elegant technology that offers the possibility of developing electrical stimulation therapies for a number of major diseases that currently lack adequate treatments,” explained David Rampulla, Ph.D., director of the Program in Biomaterials and Biomolecular Constructs at NIBIB

Shedding weight by curbing appetite

Worldwide, more than 700 million people — over 100 million of them children — are obese, causing health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and certain cancers. In 2015 approximately four million people died of obesity-related causes1.

To address this crisis, Wang and his colleagues developed a vagal nerve stimulator (VNS) that dramatically improves appetite suppression through electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve. The approach is a promising one that has previously not proven practical because patients must carry bulky battery packs that require proper programming, and frequent recharging

The VNS consists of a small patch, about the size of a fingernail, which carries tiny devices called nanogenerators. Minimally invasive surgery was used to attach the VNS to the stomachs of rats. The rat’s stomach movements resulted in the delivery of gentle electrical pulses to the vagus nerve, which links the brain to the stomach. With the VNS, when the stomach moved in response to eating, the electric signal told the brain that the stomach was full, even if only a small amount of food was consumed.

The device curbed the rat’s appetite and reduced body weight by a remarkable 40 percent. “The stimulation is a natural response to regulate food intake, so there are no unwanted side effects,” explained Wang. When the device was removed the rats resumed their normal eating patterns and their weight returned to pre-treatment levels.

“Given the simplicity and effectiveness of the system, coupled with the fact that the effect is reversible and carries no side-effects, we are now planning testing in larger animals with the hope of eventually moving into human trials,” said Wang.

Accelerating wound healing

In another NIBIB-funded study in a rat experimental model, the researchers used their nanogenerator technology to determine whether electrical stimulation would accelerate healing of wounds on the skin surface.

For this experiment, a band of nanogenerators was placed around the rat’s chest, where the expansion from breathing created a mild electric field. Small electrodes in a bandage-like device were placed over skin wounds on the rat’s back, where they directed the electric field to cover the wound area.

The technique reduced healing times to just three days compared with nearly two weeks for the normal healing process.

Similar to the case with appetite suppression, it was known that electricity could enhance wound healing, but the devices that had been developed were large and impractical. The nanogenerator-powered bandage is completely non-invasive and produced a mild electric field that is similar to electrical activity detected in the normal wound-healing process.

The researchers observed electrical activation of normal cellular healing processes that included the movement of healthy skin fibroblasts into the wound, accompanied by the release of biochemical factors that promote the growth of the fibroblasts and other cell types that expand to repair the wound space.

“The dramatic decrease in healing time was surprising,” said Wang, “We now plan to test the device on pigs because their skin is very similar to humans.” 

The team believes the simplicity of the electric bandage will help move the technology to human trials quickly. In addition, Wang explained that the fabrication of the device is very inexpensive and a product for human use would cost about the same as a normal bandage.

The experiments on appetite suppression were reported in the December issue of Nature Communications2. The wound-healing studies were reported in the December issue of ACS Nano3. Both studies were supported by grant EB021336 from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, and grant CA014520 from the National Cancer Institute.

Here are links to and citations for the papers,

Effective weight control via an implanted self-powered vagus nerve stimulation device by Guang Yao, Lei Kang, Jun Li, Yin Long, Hao Wei, Carolina A. Ferreira, Justin J. Jeffery, Yuan Lin, Weibo Cai & Xudong Wang. Nature Communications volume 9, Article number: 5349 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07764-z Published 17 December 2018

Effective Wound Healing Enabled by Discrete Alternative Electric Fields from Wearable Nanogenerators by Yin Long, Hao Wei, Jun Li, Guang Yao, Bo Yu, Dalong Ni, Angela LF Gibson, Xiaoli Lan, Yadong Jiang, Weibo Cai, and Xudong Wang. ACS Nano, 2018, 12 (12), pp 12533–12540 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.8b07038 Publication Date (Web): November 29, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

Both papers are open access.