Monday, November 1, 2010

Sci-Tech @ Brown

This is a bit of a serious way to begin, but it's the truth. I have known several students over the years that have lost a parent, and more often than not, cancer has been responsible for their early passing.  So the conference that I attended this weekend was exciting and full of hope on a couple of different levels.  There were at least a half-dozen speakers who addressed nanotechnology in some way. One researcher was mainly concerned with developing gene therapies, and was working on putting DNA where he wanted it using nanostructures and electric fields.

Mark Reed of Yale was another great speaker, and you can catch my very brief summary of his talk on my RET blog if you're so inclined. For me, however, the wife and husband team of Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander of Rice University were impossible to top.  Both of them had excellent talks, and clearly work together to support each other in their research in the field of nanotechnology, but their work has such a clear and powerful human side that I have been thinking a lot about it ever since I saw them.

Naomi's story was a little bit surprising, to be honest.  I sort of expected that really bright young women would have a lot easier time becoming researchers than Naomi did, but her story speaks for itself, and demonstrates how she pushed on and in the process blazed a path for others.  Click on the link and you'll be taken to the NOVA program from several years ago in which Naomi explains quite a bit about her background and her research.  The scientific essence of her talk was fantastic: I'd heard about quantum dot particles and gold nanospheres, and I knew that they were both potentially really useful in detecting and fighting cancer.  I just had no idea how advanced the field was. It was 2002 when Naomi and colleague Jennifer West founded their spinoff company, Nanospectra Biosciences which they hoped to use to develop and market their invention, the gold nanosphere.

What makes this invention so fantastic is that depending on its design, the shell and core of the nanosphere work together to determine what wavelengths of light it will absorb.  In soft tissue cancers, such as breast and neck cancers, these nanospheres can be tuned to absorb light of around 800 nm wavelength.  Why this type of light wave? The answer's simple - you and I are mostly made of water, and water mostly doesn't want anything to do with 800 nm light waves, and so they pass through cells without anything happening to them... Until they hit the gold nanoparticles, that is!  This is where many other bits of knowledge come together: because cancer cells grow rapidly, they tend to throw out inefficient, leaky blood vessels to fuel themselves.  Gold nanoparticles are small enough to sneak in through these blood vessels, so about 1% of the nanoparticles injected into mice end up in the cancer site, while the other 99% wash harmlessly out of the body.  Infrared light from a laser is then used to illuminate the tumor site. The gold nanospheres, which were designed to absorb this color of light, get very warm, and cook off the tumor cells, which die when the temperature exceeds 54 C.

I couldn't find the exact images of the photos Naomi showed in her talk from the internet, but these give you the picture.  In the span of ten days, 100% of the mice that had cancer were free of the disease, and all of them live out their normal life spans, which is about two and a half years for mice.  What's just as amazing is that there were no side-effects whatsoever - there is no known interaction of any type in the human body for gold, so this method is potentially the safest of any cancer therapy available.  At this moment, Naomi's company is in human trials for individuals with brain cancer, a disease for which there are really no good options available to doctors.  I could explain why her company favors rods instead of spheres, but to get the real explanation, you'll have to come to the next Sci-Tech Club meeting in the Benjamin Physics Lab B129, after school.  Listen for announcements!

1 comment:

  1. Great meeting today - thanks to Nick, Spencer, Matt, Jake and Minh for their great ideas. Looks like we'll be heading to the MIT particle accelerator for our first adventure. If you love science and want to learn more, follow here for more announcements and info.

    Also, post your ideas & suggestions!! Have fun, GS