Nanotechnology Today

How Close Are We To Molecular Manufacturing? (and Other Happenings in the World of Nanotechnology)

Monday, April 29, 2013

MSRA (No Longer) A Big Deal?

A wide variety of pathogens that harm or kill are known as “pore-forming” toxins.  These pore-forming toxins destroy cells by perforating the cell membranes, disrupting their internal chemical balance and causing them to burst.   Pore-forming toxins compose about one-quarter of all known protein toxins and increase the infectivity and severity of bacterial diseases, and include E. coli, MSRA, anthrax and snake venom. 

Scientists at the University of California – San Diego have developed what they are terming a “nanosponge” which neutralizes these toxins and renders them ineffective.  Using a technique developed by one of the research team several years earlier, the scientists are able to wrap nano-sized spheres of a lactic acid byproduct with the membrane of a red blood cell.  The membrane from a single red blood cell can be used to wrap, literally, thousands of the nanosponges (which are 3000x smaller than a red blood cell).  The process appears to be repeatable and scalable, so that not much blood is required to develop these nanosponges.  By encasing the lactic acid byproduct in the membrane of a red blood cell, the nanosponge can travel freely in the bloodstream without being viewed as a foreign body (and thus remaining free from the body’s immuno-response processes).  These tiny nanosponges then circulate freely through the body and attract 10s to 100s of the pore-forming toxins each and render them ineffective by trapping them onto the nanosponge, where they continue to circulate in the bloodstream until they are metabolized in the liver with no ill effects.  Because of their small size, thousands can be circulated in the blood stream, outnumbering the number of red blood cells and intercepting the toxins.

In lab tests, 18 mice were injected with a lethal dose of MSRA.  Nine were subsequently injected with the nanosponges.  All the non-inoculated mice died, whereas only 1 mouse that received the nanosponge injection died.

If this method proves successful in human trial, science will be able to treat a wide variety of toxins from MSRA to bee venom.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013


While there are 18,000 kidney transplants performed annually in the U.S., the sad truth is that another 100,000 persons are waiting for suitable organs (not to mention the 400,000 who are required to undergo dialysis).  Hopefully, however, the next decade will bring that figure down to near zero.

In a recent Nature Medicine article, it was disclosed that science is inching ever-closer to manufacturing replacement organs.  Investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (using rats) have developed a procedure whereby the non-functioning or donor organ is removed from the host and then, using a detergent solution, all the living cells of the donor organ are removed, leaving only the organ’s scaffolding.  Then, the organ is repopulated with the proper cells (in the case of a kidney, with endothelial cells to replace the vascular system lining, and kidney cells for remaining structure).  By adjusting the pressure through which cells are passed through the organ (through the renal artery for repopulating the vascular portions of the organ and through the ureter for populating the kidney tissue), the scientists were able to seed the organ with the appropriate number of cells, which were then implanted in the donee.

While the function of the kidneys were greatly reduced compared to normal kidneys, they did, in fact, start producing urine as soon as the blood supply was restored and there was no evidence of any clotting or bleeding.  The researchers believe that the reduced functionality may have to do with the immaturity of the cells used to repopulate the kidney (the scientists in this study used kidney cells from newborn rats).  It is possible that by allowing the seed cells to mature longer, full functionality could be obtained.

The positives of this research are many.  By using the damaged organ of the individual, the scaffolding upon which the new organ is built is a perfect match, as it is the patient’s own kidney to begin with.  Furthermore, through the use of stem cell research (which, by the way, has produced pluripotent cells from adult cells – negating any complaints about fetal stem cell use), science may be able to repopulate the scaffolding with the patient’s own cells – removing any complications from organ rejection and negating the need for anti-rejection drugs.

Scientists have successfully stripped cells from human kidneys to produce viable human scaffolding.    This technique has also been done on hearts, lungs and livers.  While not perfected and certainly not yet ready for human trial, it does provide hope that the next decade will find science up to the challenge of those in need of new organs.

Regeneration and experimental orthotopic transplantation of bioengineered kidney.  Song, J.J., Guyette, J.P., Gilpin, S.E., Gonzalez, G., Vacanti, J.P., and Ott, H.C. Nature Medicine (2013) doi:10.1038/nm.3154 Published online 14 April 2013

Full article available with subscription

Monday, April 8, 2013

Free Energy?

While the nation seeks to ween itself from our petrol society - science may allow us to continue our reliance upon fossil fuels while preserving the environment as well.

How can this be?  One possible method is through the use of bioengineering.

Joule is a company which is attempting to do just this.  The scientists of this company have - through genetic engineering - developed a microbe (two actually) which basically eats sunlight and CO2, yes, that's what is the cause of global warming, and excretes Diesel (or Ethanol).  They recently underwent testing with a large scale plant demonstration plant which has proved successful.   What does all this mean?

By setting up these plants near coal plants (or other high CO2, emission plants) Joule can direct the  CO2, into their plants, which will be fed to the microbes (along with sunlight) and convert the  COinto usable fuels.  This is a net zero fuel since all  CO2 that would discharged by the biofuel was pulled out of the atmosphere.  In addition to weaning us of foreign sources of fuel - as well as its neutral carbon footprint - it operates exactly like diesel and ethanol which makes any need to modify our vehicles or change the existing infrastructure for delivery a non-issue.

I have been following this company for several years.  Originally, they guesstimated that they could produce either of these fuels at about $40 per barrel (YES, $40 - last time crude was $40 a barrel, prices were around $1.75 gallon).  Lately, however, I've noticed that the claims for price have been modified to "competitive".  It is not clear whether this is a result of higher than expected costs of production at the larger scale facility, or whether good old Greed is to blame.  Given the current climate, it's conceivable that a company would receive plenty of feel-good press if they provided an alternative to traditional fossil fuels at the same (or near the same) as current costs - even if their profit margins were 300% greater than need be.

Additionally, they have entered into a contract with Audi to help develop carbon-neutral vehicles.  This means that either the diesel or ethanol are not quite like what we use now (requiring some vehicular modifications) or that are simply going to market this as a GREEN technology, irrespective of production costs, and make no efforts to reduce the cost of energy.

What this company chooses to do awaits to be seen.  But it does provide hope that we can ignore Middle-Eastern despots and maybe even pay less for energy.