Pulse 155: Light-Controlled Nano-Material May Transform Medicine

8 June 2020
Giulio Prisco

Optical Nanomaterials

Carnegie Mellon University scientists have created a nano-engineered material. It's a type of graphene (see below) that permits stimulating and controlling neural cells using light. This new technology is energy-efficient and does not require genetic modifications.

“The developed technology will allow us to interact with either engineered tissues or with nerve or muscle tissue in vivo,” said Tzahi Cohen-Karni, associate professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in a CMU press release. “This will allow us to control and affect tissue functionality using light remotely with high precision and low needed energies.”

According to the scientists, nanostructures created using the new material may have a major impact on the future of human biology and medicine.

“The broadband absorption of these 3D nanomaterials enabled us to use light at wavelengths that can penetrate deep into the tissue to remotely excite nerve cells,” added Maysam Chamanzar, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at CMU. “This method can be used in a whole gamut of applications, from designing non-invasive therapeutics to basic scientific studies.”

Remote Optical Stimulation of Neural Cells

Scientists led by Carnegie Mellon University have developed a new technology that enhances the ability to communicate with neural cells using light. The scientists used nanowires to synthesize a type of graphene, dubbed NW-templated three-dimensional fuzzy graphene (NT-3DFG).

A research paper published in PNAS shows that NT-3DFG enables remote optical stimulation. It does so without need for genetic modification. And it uses orders of magnitude less energy than available materials, preventing cellular stress.

Fighting COVID-19 with CRISPR Gene Editing

Scientists at Stanford University and Molecular Foundry, a nanoscience user facility located at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), are working to develop a gene-targeting, antiviral agent against COVID-19.

A research paper published in Cell suggests that a technique called PAC-MAN (Prophylactic Antiviral CRISPR in human cells) could be adapted to fight COVID-19. PAC-MAN already uses CRISPR gene-editing to fight influenza.

New Molecules Block the Growth of Cancer

Researchers led by University of Southern California have developed a new, faster way to make drugs that precisely target malignant cells, while leaving healthy tissue undamaged.

In a study published in Science Advances, the researchers describe a new technology to rapidly create drug molecules called antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs). The researchers generated ADCs that can effectively block the growth of breast cancer tumors in laboratory animals.

According to the researchers, these promising results provide a strong basis for clinical studies. And they could lead the way to better treatments for numerous types of cancer.

Nanoparticles Boost Cancer Immunotherapy

MIT engineers have found a way to boost the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapy drugs, called "checkpoint inhibitors." A study is published in PNAS.

The engineers treated laboratory mice with these drugs, along with new nanoparticles that stimulate the immune system. And the therapy became more powerful than checkpoint inhibitors given alone.

The engineers used tumor-penetrating nanoparticles that they had previously developed for delivering RNA to silence cancerous genes.

Americans Are Acutely Stressed by the Pandemic

Researchers at University of Connecticut have taken a snapshot of the immediate impact of COVID-19 on Americans' stress levels, coping strategies, and adherence to public health guidelines.

The research results are published in Journal of General Internal Medicine. They indicate that fears related to the virus itself were the most common. But respondents were more acutely concerned about the financial consequences caused by the pandemic.

Of the stressors experienced, respondents ranked loss of job security or income as the most stressful, followed by risk of a loved one becoming ill.

Cancer Cells Protect Themselves with Inflammation

Researchers at Francis Crick Institute have uncovered how cancer cells protect themselves from viruses that are harmful to tumours but not to healthy cells. These findings could lead to improved viral treatments for the disease. The study was published in Nature Cell Biology.

The researchers identified a mechanism that protects cancer cells from oncolytic viruses, which preferentially infect and kill cancer cells. When cancer cells are in direct contact with certain oncolytic viruses, this leads to inflammation in the surrounding tissue. In turn, that makes it harder for viruses to invade and replicate within the cancer cell.

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