Members and friends of Virginia Bio,
I loved the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” But in bioscience innovation and commercialization, don’t diss the really small stuff. It’s called “Nano” - Nanoparticles, nanotubes, nanosurfaces. And it’s big.
What’s up with “Nano”? First of all, materials can have very different properties and function in unique ways when structured at the nanoscale. When particles are created with dimensions of about 1–100 nanometers (where the particles can be “seen” only with scanning electron and atomic force microscopes and the like) the materials’ properties change significantly from those at larger scales.
Quantum effects rule the behavior and properties of particles, and in this size range properties such as melting point, fluorescence, electrical conductivity, magnetic permeability, and chemical reactivity change as a function of the size of the particle. Nanoscale gold particles, for example, change significantly from those at larger scale, and that can be put to practical use: nanoscale gold particles selectively accumulate in tumors, where they can enable both precise imaging and targeted laser destruction of the tumor by means that avoid harming healthy cells.
Nanoscale materials have enormously larger surface areas than similar masses of larger-scale materials. A cubic centimeter solid has a surface area of 6 square centimeters. Fill that same volume with 1-nanometer-sized cubes—1021 of them, each with an area of 6 square nanometers, and their total surface area comes to 6,000 square meters - bigger than a football field.
Now add in the observation that nature has perfected nanotechnology - most biological processes occur at the nanoscale. The diameter of hemoglobin is 5.5 nanometers, and a strand of DNA about 2 nanometers.
With this, one can begin to imagine why there’s excitement that nanowires, Bucky balls, gold nanoparticles, even nanobots can make unprecedented contributions not only to medicine, in the design of tools, the discovery and development of treatments and therapies, but also to environmental and agricultural challenges the facing the world in the coming decades.
The federal agencies of public sciences are on to it. NIH has a Nanomedicine Program
and an NIH/NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, and its website provides a good overview of the science and biomedical applications. NIST has a separate Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST), and NSF, too, has a Nanoscience Project.
In our state, the Virginia Nanotechnology Initiative (VNI)
is a statewide consortium of Virginia's universities, federal labs, state agencies, and industrial partners, dedicated to promoting collaborative nanotechnology research, workforce development, technology transfer and commercialization. Established through seed funding from Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), VNI goals include building a "nanotechnology community" in Virginia and placing the state in the forefront of nanotechnology research and innovation.
A quick (and incomplete) tour around the programs and centers at our universities and colleges includes the following:
• College of William and Mary – The Department of Applied Science works in Nanostructures & Thinfilms, and has the Nanomaterials and Imaging Lab.
• George Mason University - The Mason Nanotechnology Forum has developed a Graduate Certificate in Nanotechnology and Nanoscience, and the Mason Nanotechnology Initiative opens a space for discussion and planning to nanoscience and nanotechnology across the university.
• Old Dominion University – The Xu Group performs cutting-edge research on bio- and nano- technologies and ultrasensitive analytical methodologies to address fundamental and practical questions in chemical, biochemical and biomedical research.
• University of Virginia - multiple resources and centers dot the grounds. The Institute for Nanoscale and Quantum Scientific and Technological Advanced Research (nanoSTAR) is a dedicated, multi-disciplinary team striving to advance research & development at the nanoscale, working in nanomedicine, nano and quantum electronics, and energy/environment through partnerships with academia, industry, and national laboratories. NanoSTAR programs, including Seed Grants and the Spring Symposium. Researchers are spinning out companies, including CIT grant recipients. The Center for Nanoscopic Materials Design (MRSEC) and the Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility provide important and cutting edge resources for the university and collaborators. UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science’s departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering have formed a program in nanomedicine.
• Virginia Commonwealth University – offers a Ph.D. in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Departments of Chemistry and Physics, and at the School of Engineering the Biomedical Engineering Program includes the NanoMedicine Lab and the Nanomaterials Core Characterization Facility.
• Virginia Tech - Core resources on campus include the Micro and Nano Fabrication Laboratory and the Nanoscale Characterization and Fabrication Lab (NCFL). Other foci are the Advanced Materials Group, Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, the Nano2Earth Project and NanoBioEarth Research Group. Virginia Tech recently won a spot in the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI) a five year National Science Foundation award to focus on the interactions of nanomaterials the soil, water, air, and biological systems. Translational Nanomedicine is explored by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, ICTAS and Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI). At the Wake Forest Virginia Tech School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, Nanomedicine & Nanobioengineering provides a center of bioresearch at the nano level. Virginia Tech also offers a B.S. in nanoscience.
• Virginia’s Community Colleges offer a half dozen courses in nanotechnology and nanomaterials. And Virginia public schools have nanotechnology in their sights as well. October is “Techtober” in Virginia, and this year the National Nano Initiative, MathScience Innovation Center, and Virginia Department of Education partnered to offer a Web meeting for teachers to explore “Nanotechnology: Applications, Educational Pathways & Resources. Click here to see a nice video from the meeting
Statewide an increasing number of companies, big and small, are putting nanoscale discoveries to use in areas from therapeutics to diagnostics, biosensors, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, medical devices, environmental resource remediation and treatment, and agricultural use.
It’s hard to say “think big” with Nano; perhaps it’s think differently, use your imagination and be open to big improvements in bioscience innovation and commercialization.