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State's schools lead research into nanotech: new companies result from pioneering efforts.


SEVERAL HIGHER EDUCATIONS institutions in Arkansas are making significant strides in a technology that could soon become a ubiquitous component of products ranging from bedsheets to brain implants.

This groundbreaking advance--which could be the biggest thing since computers, one expert says--is based on something about 25,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair: the nanoparticle.

"Any application that you can think of, anything that's done today, is probably going to be impacted by nanotechnology," said Steve Stanley, vice president of commercialization at the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority. "The low-hanging fruit is just to add nanoparticles that have certain features to everything else. They'll put them in paint to help them resist fading, things like that. But eventually, it will impact everything."

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Central Arkansas at Conway and Arkansas State University at Jonesboro collaborate on a plethora of nanotechnology projects as part of a federal grant program called the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, the administrative arm of which is based in Little Rock.

Gail McClure, director of EPSCoR in Arkansas, said the most recent three-year grant allocated a total of $13.5 million, including state matches, to the colleges for nanotech research.

Several Arkansas spin-off companies have formed as outgrowths of the schools' efforts, and school scientists hope to encourage more such economic development as their research continues. Ocean NanoTech LLC of Fayetteville, NanoMech of Springdale, Orlumet LLC of North Little Rock and NN-Labs of Fayetteville are some of the first companies.

Look Who's Talking

One of the most promising projects receiving EPSCoR money is a development of the Arkansas Advancing & Supporting Science, Engineering & Technology Initiative, more commonly called the Arkansas ASSET Initiative.

The ASSET initiative, McClure said, is about two to three years away from launching a wireless nanotechnology that will have a list of applications longer than the unabridged version of its name.

Researchers from UA and UALR have developed tiny wireless nanosensors that can transmit and receive data remotely. Unlike some similar sensors, these are built with an organic polymer base rather than silicon, which makes them cheap and flexible. Silicon, experts say, is far more expensive.

McClure touted the widespread and profound effect of such a device.

Because the sensor is constructed of an organic polymer, it is more compatible with human tissue, McClure said. For example, a wireless heart implant could transform cardiac medicine by detecting a cardiac event before it harms the patient.

"The signals that that [implant] sends out could be remotely monitored anywhere, from any hospital situation," McClure said. "And if they've got a cardiologist who wants to look at those things regularly, they would know when something is beginning to happen inside the heart well before it would show up with any kind of physical symptoms that the patient would notice."



Furthermore, if a patient did have a heart attack, the implant could transmit information to incoming emergency medical technicians, saving valuable time--and possibly a life.

"As they send the ambulance out, they're already recording all the vital signs," McClure said. "The don't have to wait until they get him back to the hospital before they can actually start treatment because all of the vital signs have been sent ahead."

The nanosensor isn't all talk, either.

The sensor's ability to receive information becomes particularly useful in the treatment of ailments that cause involuntary motion such as epilepsy or Parkinson's disease.

"They presently already have sensors that can be inserted into the brain and adjusted to give off electrical stimuli so that they can adjust the amount of stimulus needed to take the shake out of the hand and bring it to normal motion so the patient is fine," McClure said. "But because it is a degenerative disease, the patient is going to continue to get worse and [shaking] will return.

"If [the implant is] wireless, they can adjust the frequency as needed so the patient doesn't have to go back into the surgical suite for the adjustment."

Similarly, McClure said, doctors foresee applying the wireless sensors to the treatment of diabetes. A wireless sensor implanted in the pancreas could monitor the release of insulin.

"With the nanosensors, you can detect sugar consumption and zap the pancreas to make it release insulin when it's needed," she said.

The wireless nanosensors are also in the prototype stage for a product to treat sleep disorders.

Because the sensors are flexible and cheap, McClure said, researchers could weave them into bedsheets.

"You can monitor the sleep condition remotely," McClure said. "The patient can sleep in their own bed in their own home.... Everyone knows that you don't sleep the same when you're not in your own bed. And you certainly are not going to sleep well if you have a hundred wires attached all over your body," she added.

Another application for the sensors, McClure said, is gear for soldiers that could remotely monitor their health status.

McClure added that wireless sensors also could be placed in structures like bridges. "You could detect weak points and so forth remotely if something were to begin to happen in a bridge," she said.

McClure said that some of the research produced by ASU's and UA's partnership could even begin to crack the Alzheimer's puzzle.

The group has woven a fabric out of nanotubes, which are single-atom layers of carbon wrapped into cylinders, and then placed brain cells onto the fabric.

"And they have found that for some reason, nerve cells love this platform. They grow very well on this platform," McClure said. "It's very difficult to get neurons to grow."

And that's not all.

"They've also found that, if they take magnetic nanotubes and put them into this culture ... a nerve cell will actually begin to grow new nerve fibers--axons--out toward this magnetic nanotube," McClure said.

"The thought is if they can train or induce nerve cells to grow along particular pathways, there might be treatments for people with chronic neural diseases where the brain cells are beginning to die.

"To be able to make it grow along a particular pathway may in fact allow patients to recapture memory because memory is not just growth of nerves, but it's growth along certain pathways."

Participating schools hope to continue such research with another grant from the EPSCoR project. The group is now in the third year of its three-year federal grant totaling $9 million and three-year state grant totaling $4.5 million. McClure said they are writing a proposal to get a five-year federal grant of $20 million with a $4 million state match.

Other Efforts

Alexandru Biris, director and chief scientist of the UALR Nanotechnology Center, has his own research agenda that differs somewhat from the collaborative research under the EPSCoR project.

That agenda, however, is nonetheless impressive.

A major aspect of his research focuses heavily on using load-bearing nanoparticles as a form of cancer treatment.

"We have these nanomaterials that look almost like soccer balls, but their cores are filled with, let's say, a magnetic metal like iron or cobalt," Biris said. "And then they have two to four layers of graphitic carbon on which we can attach antibodies."

Biris said they attach proteins that turn the nanoparticle into a sort of cancer-seeking missile.

"We can attach different types of growth factors--proteins--that are able to take these nanomaterials to the cancer cells or to the tumors," Biris said. "Once they are there, basically we can apply radio frequency ... and they heat up and actually they thermally oblate the cells. Basically they open small holes in the membranes, they create small localized damages and the cell dies."

The ultimate goal is for the system to be delivered into the bloodstream, Biris said.

The research is promising, Biris said, but his group isn't quite there yet.

Although Biris' crew has achieved success at the cell level, it still has to ensure that the nanomaterials won't "lose their load" while traveling across multiple biological systems.

The group hopes to begin testing on animals soon.

In addition, because injecting foreign matter into the body often can cause harm, studies must be conducted to ensure the treatment is safe.

Nanocoatings for medical implants are also part of Biris' agenda.

One type of coating helps increase the growth of bone cells, Biris said.

Leaving a metal plate, for example, in a bone actually inhibits bone growth. However, if the plate were nanocoated, not only would the bone cells adhere to the plate, but the plate would also stimulate the reproduction of those cells.

Such coatings can also simultaneously deliver antibiotics to prevent infection.

Orlumet LLC, UALR's spin-off, is gearing up to offer the patent-pending technology. Once the company partners with a manufacturer, the manufacturer will send the product through the Food & Drug Administration approval process.

The company expects to use the drug-delivery coating for dental implants first.

UALR's nanotech center also is working on a type of scaffolding that would be used as a frame along which a shattered bone could re-grow. The scaffolding, after it served its purpose, would vanish, leaving behind a healthy new bone, Biris said.

And that, still, is not all.

Biris' group is also developing ice- and water-phobic coatings that would be used to prevent the formation of ice on aircraft windows and propellers at high altitudes.

Biris' research group is developing plastic solar panels. Though the panels wouldn't collect as much energy as current models on the market, they would be far cheaper.

Biris said that according to the U.S. Department of Energy, a panel that harvests between 6 and 7 percent of the optical radiation that penetrates it is commercial-ready. The panels his group is developing currently achieve about 4.5 percent efficiency, Biris said.

Nano-Business, Big Aims

Although many projects are still in the early stages at the state's universities, several companies have formed from the more mature nano-projects.

NN-Labs, formed in 2001 by Xiaogang Peng of the chemistry department at the UA, has commercialized its nanocrystal product used in displays, lasers, medical labeling and other applications.

NanoMech, led by the research of Ajay Malshe of the UA, has also launched several products since its founding in 2002, one of which has grown into a subsidiary called Duralor. NanoMech produces a product called TuffTek, which is used to coat cutting tools. The strength of the nanomaterials allows the tool to last up to three times longer.

Ocean NanoTech, founded in 2004, has an array of products on the market. The company focuses heavily on the preparation of several different types of nanomaterials that are used in industrial, military, federal and academic laboratories.

Although many of the schools' projects are a still few years away from being market-ready--give or take a couple of years because of FDA hurdles--the effect of the tiny particles on the market could be huge.

"In fact, as big an impact as computers have had and microchips, nanotech's [impact] should be much larger than that," Stanley, of ASTA, said, "much, much larger."

By Jamie Walden
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Title Annotation:Education
Comment:State's schools lead research into nanotech: new companies result from pioneering efforts.(Education)
Author:Walden, Jamie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Aug 17, 2009
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