NTX Magazine Volume 3 - Page 48

Industry Spotlight Education News Briefs Big Data Heng Huang, Ph.D., is an associate professor at UT Arlington and leading investigator on a new National Science Foundation project to mine and decipher electronic medical records data. Since increasingly large amounts of “big data” are being generated in the health care industry, his research could not only help physicians predict health care needs, but also identify risks that can lead to readmission, such as heart failure patients. UTD Space Devise Dr. Rod Heelis, director of UT Dallas’ William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences, and his colleagues were chosen to design and build an experimental instrument that will be onboard a new NASA satellite mission called the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), scheduled for launch in 2017. The ICON satellite will orbit about 350 miles above earth in the ionosphere and will carry instruments built by various other institutions as well. The UTD instrument, the Ion Velocity Meter, will gather data, such as velocity, temperature and density of ions at the site of the spacecraft, while other instruments will remotely measure the state of the neutral atmosphere below the satellite, focusing on the interaction between surface weather and space weather. 46 Targeted relief TCU chemistry group experiments with nanotubes in precise biological delivery of medicine M ention the word ‘silicon’ and most think of its use in computer chips. But Dr. Jeffery Coffer, chemistry professor at TCU, is working with researchers to create a new form of silicon, crystalline silicon nanotubes, and studying their ability to deliver drugs in a very targeted manner. “As it turns out,” says Coffer, “silicon, especially when sculpted into very small sizes, has other potential important uses - one being improving human health!” His research group at TCU is investigating potential uses of silicon in nanoscale form. How small? “Ultrasmall, a billionth of a meter,” Coffer explained. Another possible use for the silicon nanotubes is a platform for “magnetic assisted drug delivery,” where a drug is added to a magnetic nanostructure, injected into the blood stream, and a magnet is used to deliver the drug to a precise location. Coffer explained that nanoparticles are often difficult to ‘herd together.’ The incorporation of iron oxide nanocrystals into silicon nanotubes allows them to be manipulated with a simple magnet and isolates the drug, located on the outside of the nanotube, from the magnetic nanoparticle at the diseased site in the body. Coffer’s research group is also developing new sustainable routes to the manufacturing of nanoscale silicon for drug delivery based on “accumulator plants.” Since bamboo and rice are convenient sources of silicon that can be transformed into porous silicon material with large surface areas, they are also capable of loading large amounts of a useful drug. “Use of plant material for this purpose is ideal,” Coffer said, “as the farmers who typically raise these specific crops often simply burn the husk away after harvesting the plant.” Is it possible that Silicon Valley has a new address in a rice paddy or cornfield? Does size matter? Definitely, says Dr. Eric Simanek, professor of chemistry at TCU. While much of the focus of his laboratory over the last five years has been on developing new ways to deliver cancer drugs to tumors using “nano,” he recognized other opportunities growing from his research. Consider his comparison of size: If mechanics worked on engines that measure a few feet across, and nephrologists work on kidneys that are 20x smaller, cell biologists work on the tiny: cells, and chemists on drug molecules 10,000 smaller still, what would happen if mechanics worked on cells and nephrologists worked on engines? “Something interesting,” says Simanek. “New ways of thinking about solutions to real world problems can come from dialogues between very different people. What would happen if organic chemists started thinking about virus-sized molecules?” Keep in mind that chemists usually make small molecules with tens of atoms, like aspirin and other drugs we take, while viruses are enormous and molecules the size of viruses are rare. Simanek’s team applied their skill and made a virus-sized molecule, work that requires a number of different skill sets. While his laboratory made the molecules, he needed help analyzing them. TCU colleague and professor Dr. Onofrio Annunziata provided the first clues that molecules were indeed virus-sized – they are so large, in fact, that collaborators in Finland and the Czech Republic could see them using electron and atomic force microscopes, respectively. A computer model of the molecules, with all 1.3 million atoms, was created in Switzerland to provide the international team the final piece of the puzzle. “The advantage of this research, which can be called ‘basic science,’ is that applications might be found anywhere,” Simanek explains. “We have had interest from researchers around the planet who think these curious molecules might be the basis for the next generation of materials, useful for gene therapy or help fight infectious disease. We are excited to play our role in these missions.” “New ways of thinking about solutions to real world problems can come from dialogues between very different people.”