Category Archives: medicine

In the future your clothing may be a health monitor

It’s not ready for the COVID-19 pandemic but if I understand it properly, wearing this clothing will be a little like wearing a thermometer and that could be very useful. A March 4, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces the research (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers have reported a new material, pliable enough to be woven into fabric but imbued with sensing capabilities that can serve as an early warning system for injury or illness.

The material, described in a paper published by ACS Applied Nano Materials (“Poly(octadecyl acrylate)-Grafted Multiwalled Carbon Nanotube Composites for Wearable Temperature Sensors”), involves the use of carbon nanotubes and is capable of sensing slight changes in body temperature while maintaining a pliable disordered structure – as opposed to a rigid crystalline structure – making it a good candidate for reusable or disposable wearable human body temperature sensors. Changes in body heat change the electrical resistance, alerting someone monitoring that change to the potential need for intervention.

I think this is an artistic rendering of the research,

Caption: Researchers have reported a new material, pliable enough to be woven into fabric but imbued with sensing capabilities that could serve as an early warning system for injury or illness. Credit: University of Houston

A March 4, 2020 University of Houston (Texas, US) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeannie Kever, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

“Your body can tell you something is wrong before it becomes obvious,” said Seamus Curran, a physics professor at the University of Houston and co-author on the paper. Possible applications range from detecting dehydration in an ultra-marathoner to the beginnings of a pressure sore in a nursing home patient.

The researchers said it is also cost-effective because the raw materials required are used in relatively low concentrations.

The discovery builds on work Curran and fellow researchers Kang-Shyang Liao and Alexander J. Wang began nearly a decade ago, when they developed a hydrophobic nanocoating for cloth, which they envisioned as a protective coating for clothing, carpeting and other fiber-based materials.

Wang is now a Ph.D. student at Technological University Dublin, currently working with Curran at UH, and is corresponding author for the paper. In addition to Curran and Liao, other researchers involved include Surendra Maharjan, Brian P. McElhenny, Ram Neupane, Zhuan Zhu, Shuo Chen, Oomman K. Varghese and Jiming Bao, all of UH; Kourtney D. Wright and Andrew R. Barron of Rice University, and Eoghan P. Dillon of Analysis Instruments in Santa Barbara.

The material, created using poly(octadecyl acrylate)-grafted multiwalled carbon nanotubes, is technically known as a nanocarbon-based disordered, conductive, polymeric nanocomposite, or DCPN, a class of materials increasingly used in materials science. But most DCPN materials are poor electroconductors, making them unsuitable for use in wearable technologies that require the material to detect slight changes in temperature.

The new material was produced using a technique called RAFT-polymerization, Wang said, a critical step that allows the attached polymer to be electronically and phononically coupled with the multiwalled carbon nanotube through covalent bonding. As such, subtle structural arrangements associated with the glass transition temperature of the system are electronically amplified to produce the exceptionally large electronic responses reported in the paper, without the negatives associated with solid-liquid phase transitions. The subtle structural changes associated with glass transition processes are ordinarily too small to produce large enough electronic responses.

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

Poly(octadecyl acrylate)-Grafted Multiwalled Carbon Nanotube Composites for Wearable Temperature Sensors by Alexander J. Wang, Surendra Maharjan, Kang-Shyang Liao, Brian P. McElhenny, Kourtney D. Wright, Eoghan P. Dillon, Ram Neupane, Zhuan Zhu, Shuo Chen, Andrew R. Barron, Oomman K. Varghese, Jiming Bao, Seamus A. Curran. ACS Appl. Nano Mater. 2020, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsanm.9b02396 (Online) Publication Date:January 28, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Replacing human tissue with nanostructured rubber-like material?

The scientists started out with an idea for creating a bone-like material)and ended up with something completely different. A March 16, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces news about a new material that could be used to replace human tissue,

Researchers from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have created a new, rubber-like material with a unique set of properties, which could act as a replacement for human tissue in medical procedures. The material has the potential to make a big difference to many people’s lives. The research was recently published in the highly regarded scientific journal ACS Nano.

In the development of medical technology products, there is a great demand for new naturalistic materials suitable for integration with the body. Introducing materials into the body comes with many risks, such as serious infections, among other things. Many of the substances used today, such as Botox, are very toxic. There is a need for new, more adaptable materials.

In the new study, the Chalmers researchers developed a material consisting solely of components that have already been shown to work well in the body.

A March 17, 2020 Chalmers University of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert but published on March 16, 2020), which originated the news item, describes the scientists’ surprising discovery and how they shifted their focus,

The foundation of the material is the same as plexiglass, a material which is common in medical technology applications. Through redesigning its makeup, and through a process called nanostructuring, they gave the newly patented material a unique combination of properties. The researchers’ initial intention was to produce a hard bone-like material, but they were met with surprising results.

“We were really surprised that the material turned to be very soft, flexible and extremely elastic. It would not work as a bone replacement material, we concluded. But the new and unexpected properties made our discovery just as exciting,” says Anand Kumar Rajasekharan, PhD in Materials Science and one of the researchers behind the study.

The results showed that the new rubber-like material may be appropriate for many applications which require an uncommon combination of properties – high elasticity, easy processability, and suitability for medical uses.

“The first application we are looking at now is urinary catheters. The material can be constructed in such a way that prevents bacteria from growing on the surface, meaning it is very well suited for medical uses,” says Martin Andersson, research leader for the study and Professor of Chemistry at Chalmers.

The structure of the new nano-rubber material allows its surface to be treated so that it becomes antibacterial, in a natural, non-toxic way. This is achieved by sticking antimicrobial peptides – small proteins which are part of our innate immune system – onto its surface. This can help reduce the need for antibiotics, an important contribution to the fight against growing antibiotic resistance.

Because the new material can be injected and inserted via keyhole surgery, it can also help reduce the need for drastic surgery and operations to rebuild parts of the body. The material can be injected via a standard cannula as a viscous fluid, so that it forms its own elastic structures within the body. Or, the material can also be 3D printed into specific structures as required.

“There are many diseases where the cartilage breaks down and friction results between bones, causing great pain for the affected person. This material could potentially act as a replacement in those cases,” Martin Andersson continues.

A further advantage of the material is that it contains three-dimensionally ordered nanopores. This means it can be loaded with medicine, for various therapeutic purposes such as improving healing and reducing inflammation. This allows for localised treatment, avoiding, for example, having to treat the entire body with drugs, something that could help reduce problems associated with side effects. Since it is non-toxic, it also works well as a filler – the researchers see plastic surgery therefore as another very interesting potential area of application for the new material.

“I am now working full time with our newly founded company, Amferia, to get the research out to industry. I have been pleased to see a lot of real interest in our material. It’s promising in terms of achieving our goal, which is to provide real societal benefit,” Anand concludes.

The path of the research to societal benefit and commercialisation, through start-up company Amferia and Chalmers Ventures

In order for the discovery of the new material to be useful and commercialised, the researchers patented their innovation before the study was published. The patent is owned by start-up company Amferia, which was founded by Martin Andersson and Anand Kumar Rajasekharan, two of the researchers behind the study, as well as researcher Saba Atefyekta who recently completed a PhD in Materials Science at Chalmers. Anand is now CEO of Amferia and will drive the application of the new material and development of the company.

Amferia has previously been noted for an antibacterial wound patch developed by the same team. Amferia now has the innovation of both the new nano-rubber and the antibacterial wound patch. The development of the company and the innovations’ path to making profit are now being carried out in collaboration with Chalmers Ventures, a subsidiary of Chalmers University of Technology.

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

Tough Ordered Mesoporous Elastomeric Biomaterials Formed at Ambient Conditions by Anand K. Rajasekharan, Christoffer Gyllensten, Edvin Blomstrand, Marianne Liebi, Martin Andersson. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 1, 241-254 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.9b01924 Publication Date:December 17, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Flexible graphene-rubber sensor for wearables

Courtesy: University of Waterloo

This waffled, greyish thing may not look like much but scientists are hopeful that it can be useful as a health sensor in athletic shoes and elsewhere. A March 6, 2020 news item on Nanowerk describes the work in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers have utilized 3D printing and nanotechnology to create a durable, flexible sensor for wearable devices to monitor everything from vital signs to athletic performance (ACS Nano, “3D-Printed Ultra-Robust Surface-Doped Porous Silicone Sensors for Wearable Biomonitoring”).

The new technology, developed by engineers at the University of Waterloo [Ontario, Canada], combines silicone rubber with ultra-thin layers of graphene in a material ideal for making wristbands or insoles in running shoes.

A March 6, 2020 University of Waterloo news release, which originated the news item, delves further,

When that rubber material bends or moves, electrical signals are created by the highly conductive, nanoscale graphene embedded within its engineered honeycomb structure.

“Silicone gives us the flexibility and durability required for biomonitoring applications, and the added, embedded graphene makes it an effective sensor,” said Ehsan Toyserkani, research director at the Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing (MSAM) Lab at Waterloo. “It’s all together in a single part.”

Fabricating a silicone rubber structure with such complex internal features is only possible using state-of-the-art 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – equipment and processes.

The rubber-graphene material is extremely flexible and durable in addition to highly conductive.

“It can be used in the harshest environments, in extreme temperatures and humidity,” said Elham Davoodi, an engineering PhD student at Waterloo who led the project. “It could even withstand being washed with your laundry.”

The material and the 3D printing process enable custom-made devices to precisely fit the body shapes of users, while also improving comfort compared to existing wearable devices and reducing manufacturing costs due to simplicity.

Toyserkani, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering, said the rubber-graphene sensor can be paired with electronic components to make wearable devices that record heart and breathing rates, register the forces exerted when athletes run, allow doctors to remotely monitor patients and numerous other potential applications.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of British Columbia collaborated on the project.

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

3D-Printed Ultra-Robust Surface-Doped Porous Silicone Sensors for Wearable Biomonitoring by Elham Davoodi, Hossein Montazerian, Reihaneh Haghniaz, Armin Rashidi, Samad Ahadian, Amir Sheikhi, Jun Chen, Ali Khademhosseini, Abbas S. Milani, Mina Hoorfar, Ehsan Toyserkani. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 2, 1520-1532 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.9b06283 Publication Date: January 6, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Get your curcumin delivered by nanoparticles

Curcumin is a constituent of turmeric (used in cooking and as a remedy in Ayurvedic medicine). It’s been a while since I’ve stumbled across a curcumin story (scientists have been trying to find a way to exploit its therapeutic qualities for years). The latest news comes from Australia, which is a little unexpected as most of the ‘curcumin research stories’ previously on this blog have come from India.

A March 5, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces new research on curcumin therapeutic possibilities,

For years, curry lovers have sworn by the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric, but its active compound, curcumin, has long frustrated scientists hoping to validate these claims with clinical studies.

The failure of the body to easily absorb curcumin has been a thorn in the side of medical researchers seeking scientific proof that curcumin can successfully treat cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and many other chronic health conditions.

Now, researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA), McMaster University in Canada and Texas A&M University have shown that curcumin can be delivered effectively into human cells via tiny nanoparticles.

Over three years ago on December 2, 2016, researchers from McMaster University made this video about Alzheimer’s and curcumin research available,

From the McMaster University, Centre for Health Economics & Policy Analysis, December 2, 2016 news webpage,

This video investigates the therapeutic potential of curcumin, a substance found in turmeric, to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The information presented in this video has integrated research including in vitro studies that aimed to observe the influence of curcumin based interventions in the neuropathology of Alzheimer’s disease. From mechanisms for neurogenesis to the disintegration of beta amyloid plaques, this video highlights that there are many pathways by which curcumin can elicit its effects. However, there are currently not enough human trials to support the mouse-model studies for turmeric’s ability to prevent Alzheimer’s.

Back to the latest work, a March 5, 2020 UniSA press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes curcumin research that focuses on STI’s (sexually transmitted infections), also mentioned is earlier work on Alzheimer’s Disease,

Sanjay Garg, a professor of pharmaceutical science at UniSA, and his colleague Dr Ankit Parikh are part of an international team that has developed a nano formulation which changes curcumin’s behaviour to increase its oral bioavailability by 117 per cent.

The researchers have shown in animal experiments that nanoparticles containing curcumin not only prevents cognitive deterioration but also reverses the damage. This finding paves the way for clinical development trials for Alzheimer’s.

Co-author Professor Xin-Fu Zhou, a UniSA neuroscientist, says the new formulation offers a potential solution for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Curcumin is a compound that suppresses oxidative stress and inflammation, both key pathological factors for Alzheimer’s, and it also helps remove amyloid plaques, small fragments of protein that clump together in the brains of Alzheimer disease patients,” Prof Zhou says.

The same delivery method is now being tested to show that curcumin can also prevent the spread of genital herpes.

“To treat genital herpes (HSV-2) you need a form of curcumin that is better absorbed, which is why it needs to be encapsulated in a nano formulation,” Prof Garg says.

“Curcumin can stop the genital herpes virus, it helps in reducing the inflammation and makes it less susceptible to HIV and other STIs,” Prof Garg says.

Women are biologically more vulnerable to genital herpes as bacterial and viral infections in the female genital tract (FGT) impair the mucosal barrier. Curcumin, however, can minimize genital inflammation and control against HSV-2 infection, which would assist in the prevention of HIV infection in the FGT.

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

Curcumin Can Decrease Tissue Inflammation and the Severity of HSV-2 Infection in the Female Reproductive Mucosa by Danielle Vitali, Puja Bagri, Jocelyn M. Wessels, Meenakshi Arora, Raghu Ganugula, Ankit Parikh, Talveer Mandur, Allison Felker, Sanjay Garg, M.N.V. Ravi Kumar, and Charu Kaushic. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020, 21(1), 337; DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21010337 Published: 4 January 2020

This is an open access paper and is part of the journal’s Special Issue Curcumin in Health and Disease: New Knowledge)

For anyone interested in the earlier work on Alzheimer’s Disease, here are links to two papers that were published in 2018 by a team led by Sanjay Garg,

Curcumin-loaded self-nanomicellizing solid dispersion system: part I: development, optimization, characterization, and oral bioavailability by Ankit Parikh, Krishna Kathawala, Yunmei Song, Xin-Fu Zhou & Sanjay Garg. Drug Delivery and Translational Research volume 8, pages 1389–1405 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13346-018-0543-3 Issue Date: October 2018

Curcumin-loaded self-nanomicellizing solid dispersion system: part II: in vivo safety and efficacy assessment against behavior deficit in Alzheimer disease by Ankit Parikh, Krishna Kathawala, Jintao Li, Chi Chen, Zhengnan Shan, Xia Cao, Xin-Fu Zhou & Sanjay Garg. Drug Delivery and Translational Research volume 8, pages 1406–1420 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13346-018-0570-0 Issue Date: October 2018

Neither of these paper is open access but you can gain access by contacting sanjay.garg@unisa.edu.au

This looks like exciting work, bearing in mind the latest curcumin research on an STI was performed on female mice. As for the Alzheimer’s papers, that curcumin research was also performed on animals, presumably mice. As the press release noted, “This finding paves the way for clinical development trials for Alzheimer’s.” Oddly, there’s no mention of clinical trials for STI’s.

Living skin with blood vessels can be 3D printed

This is a big step forward but it’s not for the faint at heart. Scientists have successfully 3D printed human skin with blood vessels and grafted them onto mice. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Yale University researchers worked together on this tissue engineering project. This video features Renseellaer’s Pankaj Kraande discussing the research,

Here’s a November 1, 2019 Rensselaer Polytechnic news release (also received via email and it’s on EurekAlert) describing the work in detail,

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a way to 3D print living skin, complete with blood vessels. The advancement, published online today [Nov. 1, 2019] in Tissue Engineering Part A, [the paper is behind a pywall] is a significant step toward creating grafts that are more like the skin our bodies produce naturally.

“Right now, whatever is available as a clinical product is more like a fancy Band-Aid,” said Pankaj Karande, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), who led this research at Rensselaer. “It provides some accelerated wound healing, but eventually it just falls off; it never really integrates with the host cells.”

A significant barrier to that integration has been the absence of a functioning vascular system in the skin grafts.

Karande has been working on this challenge for several years, previously publishing one of the first papers showing that researchers could take two types of living human cells, make them into “bio-inks,” and print them into a skin-like structure. Since then, he and his team have been working with researchers from Yale School of Medicine to incorporate vasculature.

In this paper, the researchers show that if they add key elements — including human endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels, and human pericyte cells, which wrap around the endothelial cells — with animal collagen and other structural cells typically found in a skin graft, the cells start communicating and forming a biologically relevant vascular structure within the span of a few weeks. …

“As engineers working to recreate biology, we’ve always appreciated and been aware of the fact that biology is far more complex than the simple systems we make in the lab,” Karande said. “We were pleasantly surprised to find that, once we start approaching that complexity, biology takes over and starts getting closer and closer to what exists in nature.”

Once the Yale team grafted it onto a special type of mouse, the vessels from the skin printed by the Rensselaer team began to communicate and connect with the mouse’s own vessels.

“That’s extremely important, because we know there is actually a transfer of blood and nutrients to the graft which is keeping the graft alive,” Karande said.

In order to make this usable at a clinical level, researchers need to be able to edit the donor cells using something like the CRISPR technology, so that the vessels can integrate and be accepted by the patient’s body.

We are still not at that step, but we are one step closer,” Karande said.

“This significant development highlights the vast potential of 3D bioprinting in precision medicine, where solutions can be tailored to specific situations and eventually to individuals,” said Deepak Vashishth, the director CBIS. “This is a perfect example of how engineers at Rensselaer are solving challenges related to human health.”

Karande said more work will need to be done to address the challenges associated with burn patients, which include the loss of nerve and vascular endings. But the grafts his team has created bring researchers closer to helping people with more discrete issues, like diabetic or pressure ulcers.

“For those patients, these would be perfect, because ulcers usually appear at distinct locations on the body and can be addressed with smaller pieces of skin,” Karande said. “Wound healing typically takes longer in diabetic patients, and this could also help to accelerate that process.”

Very unusually, I cannot find the full title for this paper. Here’s what I found,

Three Dimensional Bioprinting of a Vascularized and Perfusable Skin Graft Using Human Keratinocytes, Fibroblasts, Pericytes, and Endothelial Cells by Dr. Tânia Baltazar, Dr. Jonathan Merola, Miss Carolina Motter Catarino, Miss Catherine Bingchan Xie, Dr. Nancy Kirkiles-Smith, Dr. Vivian Lee, Miss Stéphanie Yuki Kolbeck Hotta, Dr. Guohao Dai, Dr. Xiaowei Xu, Dr. Frederico Castelo Ferreira, Dr. W Mark Saltzman, Dr. Jordan S Pober, and Prof. Pankaj Karande. Tissue Engineering Part A DOI: https://doi.org/10.1089/ten.TEA.2019.0201 Published Online: 1 Nov 2019

As noted earlier, this is behind a paywall.

Therapeutic nanoparticles for COVID-19 (disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 [SARS-CoV-2])—don’t hold your breath!

Last week (specifically, Tuesday, March 3, 2020), someone moved away from me during a class. I’d sneezed.

The irony of the situation is that of the two of us, with my lung issues I’d be the one most at risk of getting very ill and/or dying from COVID-19. ([1] Yes, I confirmed that was the reason she’d moved. [2] The therapeutic nanoparticles news item is coming later) Here are the risk factors to take into account (from the US Centers for Disease Control’s People at Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19 webpage,

  • Older adults [Note: In one report the age range was stated as ‘people over 70’]
  • People who have serious chronic medical conditions like:
    • Heart disease
    • Diabetes
    • Lung disease

I’m not suggesting that all precautions be abandoned but it would seem that panic might not be called for. Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, faculty in its division of health policy and public health, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, has written a calming March 4, 2020 article (COVID-19 Isn’t As Deadly As We Think; Don’t hoard masks and food. Figure out how to help seniors and the immunosuppressed stay healthy.) for Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed],

There are many compelling reasons to conclude that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is not nearly as deadly as is currently feared. But COVID-19 panic has set in nonetheless. You can’t find hand sanitizer in stores, and N95 face masks are being sold online for exorbitant prices, never mind that neither is the best way to protect against the virus (yes, just wash your hands). The public is behaving as if this epidemic is the next Spanish flu, which is frankly understandable given that initial reports have staked COVID-19 mortality at about 2–3 percent, quite similar to the 1918 pandemic that killed tens of millions of people.

Allow me to be the bearer of good news. These frightening numbers are unlikely to hold. The true case fatality rate, known as CFR, of this virus is likely to be far lower than current reports suggest. Even some lower estimates, such as the 1 percent death rate recently mentioned by the directors of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, likely substantially overstate the case. [emphases mine]

But the most straightforward and compelling evidence that the true case fatality rate of SARS-CoV-2 is well under 1 percent comes not from statistical trends and methodological massage, but from data from the Diamond Princess cruise outbreak and subsequent quarantine off the coast of Japan.

A quarantined boat is an ideal—if unfortunate—natural laboratory to study a virus. Many variables normally impossible to control are controlled. We know that all but one patient boarded the boat without the virus. We know that the other passengers were healthy enough to travel. We know their whereabouts and exposures. While the numbers coming out of China are scary, we don’t know how many of those patients were already ill for other reasons. How many were already hospitalized for another life-threatening illness and then caught the virus? How many were completely healthy, caught the virus, and developed a critical illness? In the real world, we just don’t know.

Here’s the problem with looking at mortality numbers in a general setting: In China, 9 million people die per year, which comes out to 25,000 people every single day, or around 1.5 million people over the past two months alone. A significant fraction of these deaths results from diseases like emphysema/COPD, lower respiratory infections, and cancers of the lung and airway whose symptoms are clinically indistinguishable from the nonspecific symptoms seen in severe COVID-19 cases. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the death rate from COVID-19 in China spiked precisely among the same age groups in which these chronic diseases first become common. During the peak of the outbreak in China in January and early February, around 25 patients per day were dying with SARS-CoV-2. Most were older patients in whom the chronic diseases listed above are prevalent. Most deaths occurred in Hubei province, an area in which lung cancer and emphysema/COPD are significantly higher than national averages in China, a country where half of all men smoke. How were doctors supposed to sort out which of those 25 out of 25,000 daily deaths were solely due to coronavirus, and which were more complicated? What we need to know is how many excess deaths this virus causes.

This all suggests that COVID-19 is a relatively benign disease for most young people, and a potentially devastating one for the old and chronically ill, albeit not nearly as risky as reported. Given the low mortality rate among younger patients with coronavirus—zero in children 10 or younger among hundreds of cases in China, and 0.2-0.4 percent in most healthy nongeriatric adults (and this is still before accounting for what is likely to be a high number of undetected asymptomatic cases)—we need to divert our focus away from worrying about preventing systemic spread among healthy people—which is likely either inevitable, or out of our control—and commit most if not all of our resources toward protecting those truly at risk of developing critical illness and even death: everyone over 70, and people who are already at higher risk from this kind of virus.

This still largely comes down to hygiene and isolation. But in particular, we need to focus on the right people and the right places. Nursing homes, not schools. Hospitals, not planes. We need to up the hygienic and isolation ante primarily around the subset of people who can’t simply contract SARS-CoV-2 and ride it out the way healthy people should be able to.

Curtis Kim of Vancouver, Canada, has created a website dedicated to tracking the statistics and information about COVID-19 in Canada and around the world. Here’s more about Kim and the website from a March 8, 2020 article by Megan Devlin for the Daily Hive,

Curtis Kim, who studied Computer Systems Technology at the British Columbia Institute of Technology [BCIT], launched the site this week after getting frustrated he was spending so much time on various websites looking for daily coronavirus updates.

The site breaks down the number of cases in Canada, the number of deaths (zero in Canada so far), and the number of people who have recovered. Further down, it provides the same stats for global COVID-19 cases.

There’s also a colour-coded map showing where cases are distributed, and a feed of latest news articles about the virus. Kim also included information about symptoms and how to contact Canadian public health services.

Kim is looking for work and given what I’ve seen of his COVID-19 website, he should have no difficulty. Although I think it might be an idea for him to explain how the ‘lethality’ rate on his website has been obtained since Faust who seems to have more directly relevant experience suggests in his article that the numbers are highly problematic,

My name is Curtis, recently graduated from BCIT. I thought it would be a serious worldwide issue considering the speed of the spread of this virus ever since this COVID-19 occurred. I frequently googled to check up the current status by going through many websites and felt I was wasting time repeatedly searching with same keywords and for sure I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. That’s why I started creating this application. It provides up-to-date information on the COVID-19 broken by province and country around the world, key contact information, and latest news. I like to help people, and want them to understand this situation easily using this application. Hopefully this situation improves soon.

If you have any further inquries about the information on this web application, Please reach me at curtisk808@gmail.com

At about 11:45 am (PT) on March 9, 2020, Kim’s COVID-19 website was updated to include one death in Canada. As you might expect, ti was a resident in a long term care home. Wanyee Li’s March 9, 2020 article for The Star presents the news,

A resident at a long-term care home experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak in North Vancouver has died after contracting the virus, B.C. health officials confirmed Monday [March 9, 2020].

It is the first reported death in Canada linked to the virus.

The outbreak at the Lynn Valley Care Centre has so far been linked to three community transmission cases of the virus.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry confirmed five new cases of COVID-19 in B.C. on Monday [March 9, 2020], putting the total in the province at 32.

The five new cases include one health-care worker, two people who are close contacts of an existing case, one person who recently returned from travel to Iran and another who was in Italy recently.

Officials are conducting an investigation into the three community transmission cases at the long-term care home to determine how a health care worker contracted the virus.

I looked up the population figures for the province of British Columbia (BC; Wikipedia entry for Demographics of British Columbia). As of the 2016 census, there were 4,648,055 people in the province. Assuming that population number holds, 67 cases in all of Canada (with 27 cases in BC) of COVID-19 don’t seem like big numbers.

We should definitely take precautions and be careful but there’s no need to panic.

Nanoparticles and a COVID-19 treatment?

Don’t hold you breath. This March 5, 2020 news item on Nanowerk is speculative,

There is no vaccine or specific treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2.

Since the outbreak began in late 2019, researchers have been racing to learn more about SARS-CoV-2, which is a strain from a family of viruses known as coronavirus for their crown-like shape.

Northeastern Ûniversity] chemical engineer Thomas Webster, who specializes in developing nano-scale medicine and technology to treat diseases, is part of a contingency of scientists that are contributing ideas and technology to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.

The idea of using nanoparticles, Webster says, is that the virus behind COVID-19 consists of a structure of a similar scale as his nanoparticles. At that scale, matter is ultra-small, about ten thousand times smaller than the width of a single strand of hair.

..

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round gold objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (Image: NIAID-RML)

A March 4, 2020 Northeastern University news release by Roberto Molar Candanosa, which originated the news item, delves further into Webster’s thinking process,

Webster is proposing particles of similar sizes that could attach to SARS-CoV-2 viruses, disrupting their structure with a combination of infrared light treatment. That structural change would then halt the ability of the virus to survive and reproduce in the body.

“You have to think in this size range,” says Webster, Art Zafiropoulo Chair of chemical engineering at Northeastern. “In the nanoscale size range, if you want to detect viruses, if you want to deactivate them.”

Finding and neutralizing viruses with nanomedicine is at the core of what Webster and other researchers call theranostics, which focuses on combining therapy and diagnosis. Using that approach, his lab has specialized in nanoparticles to fight the microbes that cause influenza and tuberculosis. 

“It’s not just having one approach to detect whether you have a virus and another approach to use it as a therapy,” he says, “but having the same particle, the same approach, for both your detection and therapy.”

I wish Webster good luck. As for the rest us, let’s wash our hands and keep calm.

Nano 2020: a US education initiative

The US Department of Agriculture has a very interesting funding opportunity, Higher Education Challenge (HEC) Grants Program, as evidenced by the Nano 2020 virtual reality (VR) classroom initiative. Before launching into the specifics of the Nano 2020 project, here’s a description of the funding program,

Projects supported by the Higher Education Challenge Grants Program will: (1) address a state, regional, national, or international educational need; (2) involve a creative or non-traditional approach toward addressing that need that can serve as a model to others; (3) encourage and facilitate better working relationships in the university science and education community, as well as between universities and the private sector, to enhance program quality and supplement available resources; and (4) result in benefits that will likely transcend the project duration and USDA support.

A February 3, 2020 University of Arizona news release by Stacy Pigott (also on EurekAlert but published February 7, 2020) announced a VR classroom where students will be able to interact with nanoscale data gained from agricultural sciences and the life sciences,

Sometimes the smallest of things lead to the biggest ideas. Case in point: Nano 2020, a University of Arizona-led initiative to develop curriculum and technology focused on educating students in the rapidly expanding field of nanotechnology.

The five-year, multi-university project recently met its goal of creating globally relevant and implementable curricula and instructional technologies, to include a virtual reality classroom, that enhance the capacity of educators to teach students about innovative nanotechnology applications in agriculture and the life sciences.

Here’s a video from the University of Arizona’s project proponents which illustrates their classroom,

For those who prefer text or like to have it as a backup, here’s the rest of the news release explaining the project,

Visualizing What is Too Small to be Seen

Nanotechnology involves particles and devices developed and used at the scale of 100 nanometers or less – to put that in perspective, the average diameter of a human hair is 80,000 nanometers. The extremely small scale can make comprehension challenging when it comes to learning about things that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

That’s where the Nano 2020 virtual reality classroom comes in. In a custom-developed VR classroom complete with a laboratory, nanoscale objects come to life for students thanks to the power of science data visualization.

Within the VR environment, students can interact with objects of nanoscale proportions – pick them up, turn them around and examine every nuance of things that would otherwise be too small to see. Students can also interact with their instructor or their peers. The Nano 2020 classroom allows for multi-player functionality, giving educators and students the opportunity to connect in a VR laboratory in real time, no matter where they are in the world.

“The virtual reality technology brings to life this complex content in a way that is oddly simple,” said Matt Mars, associate professor of agricultural leadership and innovation education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of the Nano 2020 grant. “Imagine if you can take a student and they see a nanometer from a distance, and then they’re able to approach it and see how small it is by actually being in it. It’s mind-blowing, but in a way that students will be like, ‘Oh wow, that is really cool!'”

The technology was developed by Tech Core, a group of student programmers and developers led by director Ash Black in the Eller College of Management.

“The thing that I was the most fascinated with from the beginning was playing with a sense of scale,” said Black, a lifelong technologist and mentor-in-residence at the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship. “What really intrigued me about virtual reality is that it is a tool where scale is elastic – you can dial it up and dial it down. Obviously, with nanotechnology, you’re dealing with very, very small things that nobody has seen yet, so it seemed like a perfect use of virtual reality.”

Black and Tech Core students including Robert Johnson, Hazza Alkaabi, Matthew Romero, Devon Oberdan, Brandon Erickson and Tim Lukau turned science data into an object, the object into an image, and the image into a 3D rendering that is functional in the VR environment they built.

“I think that being able to interact with objects of nanoscale data in this environment will result in a lot of light bulbs going off in the students’ minds. I think they’ll get it,” Black said. “To be able to experience something that is abstract – like, what does a carbon atom look like – well, if you can actually look at it, that’s suddenly a whole lot of context.”

The VR classroom complements the Nano 2020 curriculum, which globally expands the opportunities for nanotechnology education within the fields of agriculture and the life sciences.

Teaching the Workforce of the Future

“There have been great advances to the use of nanotechnology in the health sciences, but many more opportunities for innovation in this area still exist in the agriculture fields. The idea is to be able to advance these opportunities for innovation by providing some educational tools,” said Randy Burd, who was a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Arizona when he started the Nano 2020 project with funding from a National Institute of Food and Agriculture Higher Education Challenge grant through the United States Department of Agriculture. “It not only will give students the basics of the understanding of the applications, but will give them the innovative thought processes to think of new creations. That’s the real key.”

Unknown Object

The goal of the Nano 2020 team, which includes faculty from the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and Johns Hopkins University, was to create an online suite of undergraduate courses that was not university-specific, but could be accessed and added to by educators to reach students around the world.

To that end, the team built modular courses in nanotechnology subjects such as glycobiology, optical microscopy and histology, nanomicroscopy techniques, nutritional genomics, applications of magnetic nanotechnology, and design, innovation, and entrepreneurship, to name a few. An online library will be created to facilitate the ongoing expansion of the open-source curricula, which will be disseminated through novel technologies such as the virtual reality classroom.

“It isn’t practical to think that other universities and colleges are just going to be able to launch new courses, because they still need people to teach those courses,” Mars said. “So we created a robust and flexible set of module-based course packages that include exercises, lectures, videos, power points, tools. Instructors will be able to pull out components and integrate them into what already exists to continue to move toward a more comprehensive offering in nanotechnology education.”

According to Mars, the highly adaptable nature of the curriculum and the ability to deliver it in various ways were key components of the Nano 2020 project.

“We approach the project with a strong entrepreneurial mindset and heavy emphasis on innovation. We wanted it to be broadly defined and flexible in structure, so that other institutions access and model the curricula, see its foundation, and adapt that to what their needs were to begin to disseminate the notion of nanotechnology as an underdeveloped but really important field within the larger landscape of agriculture and life sciences,” Mars said. “We wanted to also provide an overlay to the scientific and technological components that would be about adoption in human application, and we approached that through an innovation and entrepreneurial leadership lens.”

Portions of the Nano 2020 curriculum are currently being offered as electives in a certificate program through the Department of Agriculture Education, Technology and Innovation at the University of Arizona. As it becomes more widely disseminated through the higher education community at large, researchers expect the curriculum and VR classroom technology to transcend the boundaries of discipline, institution and geography.

“An online open platform will exist where people can download components and courses, and all of it is framed by the technology, so that these experiences and research can be shared over this virtual reality component,” Burd said. “It’s technologically distinct from what exists now.”

“The idea is that it’s not just curriculum, but it’s the delivery of that curriculum, and the delivery of that curriculum in various ways,” Mars said. “There’s a relatability that comes with the virtual reality that I think is really cool. It allows students to relate to something as abstract as a nanometer, and that is what is really exciting.”

As best I can determine, this VR Nano 2020 classroom is not yet ready for a wide release and, for now, is being offered exclusively at the University of Arizona.

‘What becomes of the broken-hearted?’ Trinity College Dublin scientists may have an answer

While Valentine’s Day as celebrated here in Canada and elsewhere (but not everywhere) on February 14 of each year is usually marked in a purely joyous fashion,I’m going to focus on heartbreak. Here is one of the greatest versions of ‘What becomes of the broken-hearted?’ Then, repair follows in the context of some cardiac research coming out of Ireland,

Thank you Joan Osborne and the Funk Brothers. If you haven’t seen ‘Standing in the shadows of Motown’, you may want to make a point of it.

As for the musical question in the headline, researchers at Trinity College Dublin may have an answer of sorts. A February 13, 2020 Trinity College Dublin press release (also on EurekAlert) describes how broken hearts can be mended,

Bioengineers from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, have developed a prototype patch that does the same job as crucial aspects of heart tissue.

Their patch withstands the mechanical demands and mimics the electrical signalling properties that allow our hearts to pump blood rhythmically round our bodies.

Their work essentially takes us one step closer to a functional design that could mend a broken heart.

One in six men and one in seven women in the EU will suffer a heart attack at some point in their lives. Worldwide, heart disease kills more women and men – regardless of race, than any other disease.

Cardiac patches lined with heart cells can be applied surgically to restore heart tissue in patients who have had damaged tissue removed after a heart attack and to repair congenital heart defects in infants and children. Ultimately, though, the goal is to create cell-free patches that can restore the synchronous beating of the heart cells, without impairing the heart muscle movement.

The bioengineers report their work, which takes us one step closer to such a reality, in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Michael Monaghan, ussher assistant professor in biomedical engineering at Trinity, and senior author on the paper, said:

“Despite some advances in the field, heart disease still places a huge burden on our healthcare systems and the life quality of patients worldwide. It affects all of us either directly or indirectly through family and friends. As a result, researchers are continuously looking to develop new treatments which can include stem cell treatments, biomaterial gel injections and assistive devices.”

“Ours is one of few studies that looks at a traditional material, and through effective design allows us to mimic the direction-dependent mechanical movement of the heart, which can be sustained repeatably. This was achieved through a novel method called ‘melt electrowriting’ and through close collaboration with the suppliers located nationally we were able to customise the process to fit our design needs.”

This work was performed in the Trinity Centre for Biomedical Engineering, based in the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute in collaboration with Spraybase®, a subsidiary of Avectas Ltd. It was funded by Enterprise Ireland through the Innovation Partnership Program (IPP).

Dr Gillian Hendy, director of Spraybase® is a co-author on the paper. Dr Hendy commended the team at Trinity on the work completed and advancements made on the Spraybase® Melt Electrowriting (MEW) System. The success achieved by the team highlights the potential applications of this novel technology in the cardiac field and succinctly captures the benefits of industry and academic collaboration, through platforms such as the IPP.

Engineering replacement materials for heart tissue is challenging since it is an organ that is constantly moving and contracting. The mechanical demands of heart muscle (myocardium) cannot be met using polyester-based thermoplastic polymers, which are predominantly the approved options for biomedical applications.

However, the functionality of thermoplastic polymers could be leveraged by its structural geometry. The bioengineers then set about making a patch that could control the expansion of a material in multiple directions and tune this using an engineering design approach.

The patches were manufactured via melt electrowriting – a core technology of Spraybase® – which is reproducible, accurate, and scalable. The patches were also coated with the electroconductive polymer polypyrrole to provide electrical conductivity while maintaining cell compatibility.

The patch withstood repeated stretching, which is a dominant concern for cardiac biomaterials, and showed good elasticity, to accurately mimic that key property of heart muscle.

Professor Monaghan added:

“Essentially, our material addresses a lot of requirements. The bulk material is currently approved for medical device use, the design accommodates the movement of the pumping heart, and has been functionalised to accommodate signaling between isolated contractile tissues.”

“This study currently reports the development of our method and design, but we are now looking forward to furthering the next generation of designs and materials with the eventual aim of applying this patch as a therapy for a heart attack.”

Dr Dinorath Olvera, Trinity, first author on the paper, added:

“Our electroconductive patches support electrical conduction between biological tissue in an ex vivo model. These results therefore represent a significant step towards generating a bioengineered patch capable of recapitulating aspects of heart tissue – namely its mechanical movement and electrical signalling.”

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

Electroconductive Melt Electrowritten Patches Matching the Mechanical Anisotropy of Human Myocardium by Dinorath Olvera, Mina Sohrabi Molina, Gillian Hendy, Michael G. Monaghan. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.201909880 First published: 12 February 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here are links, should you be interested in the company partnering with the researchers, Spraybase®, or its parent company, Avectas Ltd.

Finally, the singer who made ‘What becomes of the broken-hearted?’ a hit in 1965 was Jimmy Ruffin,

Enjoy.

Trick your kidneys with sugar (molecules, that is)

A February 4, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research that makes it possible for kidneys to remove nanoparticles after they’ve been used in therapeutic remedies (Note: A link has been removed),

In the past decade nanomedicine has contributed to better detection and treatment of cancer. Nanoparticles are several 100 times smaller than the smallest grain of sand and can therefore easily travel in the blood stream to reach the tumor.

However, they are still too big to be removed by the kidneys. Since several doses of nanoparticles are necessary to treat a tumor, over time the nanoparticles can accumulate in the kidney and cause irreversible damage.

In a study published in the scientific journal Biomaterials (“Renal clearance of polymeric nanoparticles by mimicry of glycan surface of Viruses”), materials scientists at the University of Freiburg [Germany] led by Prof. Dr. Prasad Shastri from the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry now present a natural solution to this problem: they built nanoparticles with the carbohydrate polysaccharides, which led to the excretion of the particles.

A February 4, 2020 University of Freiberg press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

In nature viruses such as the herpes simplex virus-1 and the cytomegalovirus, which are able to pass through the kidney filtration apparatus despite their large size compared to nanoparticles. Shastri and his team identified that both viruses presents sugar molecules on their surface. Inspired by this observation, the scientists engineered nanoparticles containing polysaccharides. These carbohydrates are frequently found in the human tissue environment. Using a real-time imaging technique, which they have established in their laboratory, the team investigated in a mouse model the fate of these nanoparticles. They observed that the polysaccharide-enriched nanoparticles readily pass through the kidney and are excreted with the urine within a few hours after intravenous administration. The decisive factor for the researchers was that the nanoparticles continued to act as intended and were still able to target tumors.

“The ability to combine tumor accumulation and kidney clearance in the same nanoparticle represents a tipping point in ensuring that nanomedicines can be safely administered” says Shastri. “Our nature-inspired approach enabled us to trick the kidney environment to let nanoparticles pass through” adds Dr. Melika Sarem who was a co-author of the study.

Prasad Shastri is Professor of Biofunctional Macromolecular Chemistry at the Institute for Macromolecular Chemistry and Professor of Cell Signalling Environments in the Excellence Cluster BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies and at the University of Freiburg.

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

Renal clearance of polymeric nanoparticles by mimicry of glycan surface of viruses by Pradeep P.Wyss, Surya P.Lamichhane, Ahmed Abed, Daniel Vonwil, Oliver Kretz, Tobias B. Huber, Melika Sarema, V. Prasad Shastri. Biomaterials Volume 230, February 2020, 119643 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2019.119643 First published online November 23, 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.