Category Archives: Nanotechnology

Researchers merge human tissue with nanoscale wire “scaffold”

Scientists at Harvard have created a new system for using nanoscale wires to create scaffolds upon which human cells can grow into tissue. The combined “cyborg tissue” will enable researchers to measure chemical or electrical changes in living tissue. From the Harvard Gazette:

The process of building the networks, Lieber said, is similar to that used to etch microchips.

Beginning with a two-dimensional substrate, researchers laid out a mesh of organic polymer around nanoscale wires, which serve as the critical sensing elements. Nanoscale electrodes, which connect the nanowire elements, were then built within the mesh to enable nanowire transistors to measure the activity in cells without damaging them. Once completed, the substrate was dissolved, leaving researchers with a netlike sponge, or a mesh, that can be folded or rolled into a host of three-dimensional shapes.

Once complete, the networks were porous enough to allow the team to seed them with cells and encourage those cells to grow in 3-D cultures.

Takeaway quote from Charles M. Lieber, Mark Hyman Jr. Professor of Chemistry at Harvard: “Ultimately, this is about merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin.”

“Superhuman” exhibition showcases human enhancement through history, into the future

“Superhuman” – an exhibit currently showing at The Wellcome Collection in London – is showcasing art and displays focused on human enhancement throughout our history. The undeniably transhumanist exhibition will also examine how technology “stretches our ability to perform in the world.” From the site:

Glasses, lipstick, false teeth, the contraceptive pill and even your mobile phone – we take for granted how commonplace human enhancements are. Current scientific developments point to a future where cognitive enhancers and medical nanorobots will be widespread as we seek to augment our beauty, intelligence and health.

Superhuman takes a broad and playful look at our obsession with being the best we can be. Items on display range from an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe to a packet of Viagra, alongside contributions from artists such as Matthew Barney and scientists, ethicists and commentators working at the cutting edge of this most exciting, and feared, area of modern science.

“Superhuman” will run through October 16, 2012.

Physicians ponder the future of medical robotics

Robots like the da Vinci surgical robot have enabled humans to achieve a remarkable degree of precision when performing certain surgeries, but these technologies – while incredible – are really just an extension of a physician’s body, like a very high tech scalpel or forceps.

A new generation of tiny snake-like robots is actually capable of crawling through the body to perform surgery, but again, these are guided by a human physician, and tethered to a external machine.

Physicians may look forward to these developments, but many may not foresee a future in which the robot will perform tasks on its own, without the guiding hand of a doctor:

“It won’t be very long before we have robots that are nanobots, meaning they will actually be inside the body without tethers,” said Dr. Michael Argenziano, the Chief of Adult Cardiac Surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

Argenziano was involved with some of the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration clinical trials on robotic heart surgery more than 10 years ago. Now he says snake robots have become a commonly used tool that gives surgeons a whole new perspective.

“It’s like the ability to have little hands inside the patients, as if the surgeon had been shrunken, and was working on the heart valve,” he said.

But Argenziano and experts in robotics say the new creations work best when they’re designed for very specific tasks. “The robot is a tool. It is no different in that sense than a scalpel. It’s really a master-slave device,” he said.

Argenziano recognizes that medical robots will continue to shrink in size and expand in capability, but is careful to note they won’t be putting him out of a job any time soon. He’s correct – for now.

In a generation, however, we may very well loose tiny robots within our bodies to perform autonomous diagnostics and procedures, often before we’ve even become aware of any symptoms that something is wrong. The role of a physician could easily change to that of a manager, directing fleets of tiny robots within patients, similar to the way an engineer helps guide the actions of robots on a factory floor.

National Research Council: More nanotechnology safety studies needed

Today the U.S. National Research Council announced the results of a study designed to help us learn what we don’t know about potential hazards of nanotechnology, and they came to the conclusion that… we need more studies. In addition to their recommendation of spending an additional $24 million per year to study how nanotech might negatively impact human health and the environment, they also proposed the creation of a federal agency to “integrate research by private business, universities and international groups.”

“Despite the promise of nanotechnology, without strategic research into emergent risks associated with it — and a clear understanding of how to manage and avoid potential risks — the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology-based materials, products, and processes is uncertain,” said the study by a committee of 19 scientists.

There is insufficient understanding about the environmental, health and safety effects of engineered nanotechnology materials (ENMs). Little progress has been made on the health effects of ENMs that have been swallowed, inhaled or absorbed by humans, it said.

There also has been little research on potential damage from more-complex ENMs that are expected to come into the market in the next decade.

The federal Centers for Disease Control says there are indications “that nanoparticles can penetrate the skin or move from the respiratory system to other organs.”

Existing research shows that certain nanoparticles – such as carbon nanotubes – may have significant negative health effects, including being implicated in certain cancers. As ENMs find their way into new products, more research will be required to put the public’s mind at ease, if nothing else.

Researchers develop nanometer-width electric motor

Scientists from Tufts University in Massachusetts have developed the first nanometer-sized motor to be powered by electricity. From the International Business Times:

“There has been significant progress in the construction of molecular motors powered by light and by chemical reactions, but this is the first time that electrically-driven molecular motors have been demonstrated, despite a few theoretical proposals,” said E. Charles H. Sykes, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at Tufts who led the team.

“We have been able to show that you can provide electricity to a single molecule and get it to do something that is not just random.”

The team used a scanning tunnelling microscope that shows molecules through electrons instead of light, and managed to spin a single butyl methyl sulfide molecule. They used the metal tip of the microscope to provide an electrical charge to the molecule that had been placed on a copper surface.

Currently, the nano-motor must be operated at minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit, because at higher temperatures the motor spins too fast to “observe and control.” Eventually, however, the researchers who developed this technology would like to integrate these motors into nano-scale machinery that would operate at higher temperatures.

Research on the motor is published in the most current issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

Militant Luddites target nanotechnology, robotics researchers

This is spooky, and hopefully not the start of a trend. From the AP:

MEXICO CITY—A Mexican prosecutor says an anti-technology group is responsible for a package bomb that injured two university professors.

Prosecutor Alfredo Castillo says a group calling itself Individuals Tending to Savagery had signed a partially destroyed note found at the scene.

Castillo said Tuesday the group opposes experiments with nanotechnology, and has staged attacks on academics before.

One of the two professors who suffered non life-threatening injuries in the blast was involved in robotics research.

As advanced technology changes what it means to be “human,” I would expect these kinds of attacks, as well as anti-technology activism, to increase.

Study: Public does not see nanoparticles as public health risk

Despite any reputation hits nanotechnology may have received in science fiction, the public hasn’t taken fear of nanotechnology to heart – at least when it comes to nanoparticles.

Research conducted at North Carolina State University shows the public is relatively unconcerned with nanoparticles as a public health risk. In fact, the study abstract notes nanotechnology ranked 19 out of 24 in terms of “overall risk” and 20 out of 24 in terms of “high risk” items. Among respondents, 60 percent felt nanoparticles posed “no” or a “very slight” health risk – even routine activities like sun tanning and drinking alcohol ranked higher.

Nanoparticles, which by definition are 100 nm or less in size, show promise or are actively being used for a variety of applications, including medicine, materials science, food preservation and battery design, among many others. The public’s acceptance and even enthusiasm for nanotechnology bodes well for the future, as development on the nano scale shows no signs of slowing down.

New article at H+ Magazine: “This Year, Transhumanism Will Stop Sounding Crazy”

Today, H+ Magazine published an article I wrote about how mainstream audiences have begun to pay attention and respect to transhumanist ideas on a scale never previously before seen. From the article:

Tell your friends, family or co-workers you’re a transhumanist. Explain what it means. You might try telling them you’ve arranged to be cryogenically preserved after death (or expect to live for hundreds or thousands of years). You might explain that your idea of an existential threat is not of rogue nations, loose nukes or pandemics, but rather that posed by a super-intelligent AI. Or, you might discuss the theoretical promise of molecular nanotechnology that could lead to a post-scarcity economy within our (natural) lifetimes.

At best, they will think you’re eccentric. At worst, they’ll think you’re crazy.

And really, who can blame them? After all, outside of a relatively small community of thinkers, philosophers, scientists and technology enthusiasts, these concepts have not been widely acknowledged, let alone discussed, among laypeople or in the mass media. This is understandable, as the the promises for many of these technologies exist only as hypotheses, theories or even more ethereal ideas sprouting from the brains of futurists and science fiction authors.

However, the acceptance and acknowledgement of these ideas is blossoming among non-transhumanists. More than ever, media are covering concepts like radical longevity and the Singularity and treating them with a cautious respect.

If you’re so inclined, head over to H+ and leave a comment with your thoughts.

Nanotechnology new weapon in war against MRSA

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, leads to infections that are difficult or impossible to treat with conventional antibiotics. While there are some treatment options currently available, as well as some potential antibiotic treatments that are in various stages of regulatory approval, I often fear we’re quickly approaching a time when antibiotics simply no longer work – and that is a very scary thought.

Fortunately, new ways of treating MRSA are in development, including what sounds like a very promising approach using nanotechnology, pioneered by IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. This approach uses nanostructures that are only attracted to infected cells, leaving healthy tissue alone. Furthermore, they destroy bacteria in a manner fundamentally different than the mechanism of action used with antibiotics, ensuring that bacteria cannot develop resistance to the treatment.

From an IBM press release:

Once these polymers come into contact with water in or on the body, they self assemble into a new polymer structure that is designed to target bacteria membranes based on electrostatic interaction and break through their cell membranes and walls. The physical nature of this action prevents bacteria from developing resistance to these nanoparticles.

The electric charge naturally found in cells is important because the new polymer structures are attracted only to the infected areas while preserving the healthy red blood cells the body needs to transport oxygen throughout the body and combat bacteria.

Because the polymers are biodegradable, researchers envision using this technology for a number of potential applications, including consumer products like deodorant, antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizer. From the sound of it, this would be a broad-spectrum treatment, not only being used to treat MRSA but also drug-resistant tuberculosis and other serious infections.

Although this is only in the very early stages of research, if it works, it would be a game-changer – not only for treating MRSA but for nanomedicine, as well.

Via: MedGadget

Microbatteries to be “smaller than a grain of sand”

While portable electronic devices continue to get smaller and thinner, battery sizes have become a sticking point. These days a good deal of engineering goes into designing devices to fit around the battery, which takes up the bulk of devices like smartphones and tablet computers.

As electronics shrink and approach microscopic sizes, they’ll need a way to store power, which is why DARPA is funding the development of tiny batteries:

“We’re trying to achieve the same power densities, the same energy densities as traditional lithium ion batteries, but we need to make the footprint much smaller,” says (UCLA engineer Jane) Chang.

To reach this goal, Chang is thinking in three dimensions in collaboration with Bruce Dunn other researchers at UCLA. She’s coating well-ordered micro-pillars or nano-wires — fabricated to maximize the surface-to-volume ratio, and thus the potential energy density — with electrolyte, the conductive material that allows current to flow in a battery.

Using atomic layer deposition — a slow but precise process that allows layers of material only an atom thick to be sprayed on a surface — she has successfully applied the solid electrolyte lithium aluminosilicate to these nanomaterials.

The article notes researchers have made significant progress on creating the individual components of a microbattery, but that development is ongoing.