Argonne National Lab researcher Elena Rozhkova and other scientists are capable of building materials atom by atom and controlling their advanced functions. Such materials can be used to manipulate, control, and repair biological systems at unprecedentedly small scales. She talks a bit about the effect of these machines on medicine and technology.
This Q&A and video are part of the Lab Breakthrough series, which highlights innovations developed at the National Labs.
Question: What makes the breakthrough so exciting for doctors and patients?
Elena Rozhkova: “Nano” is a big trend these days, and there are great expectations that it will revolutionize technology and overcome our civilization’s challenges, including a sustainable energy supply, information storage, and medical treatments for diseases such as cancer, which is what we’re working on. Current treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, developed in the last century, cannot win a battle with the deadly disease. But nanotechnology is expected to lead to a new generation of diagnostic and therapeutic technologies, dramatically improving the quality of life for millions.
Q: What about your facilities specific resources made it the right place to develop this technology?
ER: The Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory is a user facility that provides expertise and instruments for interdisciplinary nanoscience and nanotechnology research.The CNM user program is open to academia, industry, and government agencies worldwide. CNM’s staff scientists have strong backgrounds in physics, chemistry, materials, and life sciences, which allows us to help medical doctors answer questions in nanoscience and nanotechnology.
Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?
ER: Our principles are inspired by biology. For example, we use a high-efficiency photocatalyst called titanium dioxide — a white pigment known from ancient times — to build what’s called a nano-bio catalyst. This is a nanoparticle that triggers specific reactions in cells. The particle attaches to unwanted (tumor) cells, and when we shine light on them, they kill the cells through oxidation. In another example, magnetic disks attach to tumor cells. When we apply a very weak magnetic field, the disks trigger receptors that cause the cells to begin apoptosis, or "cell suicide".
We know how to build materials with desired structures and “tune” their photophysical and magnetic properties. While these materials are mainly developed for energy, catalysis, and information storage technologies, they can also be introduced to natural systems to manipulate complex biochemical machinery. Finally, in our collaborative user projects, we translate similar principles to apply these materials for advanced medical technologies.
Q: These are pretty futuristic technologies. If this works, could it possibly mean the end of cancer?
ER: We are fortunate to live in an incredible time in which the field of nanotechnology is vigorously expanding—and nanotechnology itself is a very futuristic, cross-disciplinary field of research and technology. Now scientists are capable of building materials atom by atom and controlling their advanced functions. Such materials can be used to manipulate, control, and repair biological systems at unprecedentedly small scales, all the way down to proteins and DNA. It is very possible that we are going to witness how scientific progress will put an end to a fatal disease.
Q: Could these processes have other applications in medicine? Or even outside of medicine?
ER: Yes. Titanium dioxide has been used to degrade harmful microorganisms, and serve for photocatalytic cleaning and disinfection. Once it is tagged with biological molecules such as proteins or nucleic acids, it can recognize and demolish unwanted cells such as tumors, atherosclerosis plaques, and thrombi, and selectively knock down genes involved in illness development. Magnetic disks can be also used for cancer diagnostics and drug delivery.
Outside of medicine, they can be used in “liquid armor,” a fluid that hardens upon magnetic field application.
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