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ACS Conference Looks to the Future

Posted by Lauren Rugani on March 25, 2009

The theme for this year’s American Chemical Society national meeting in Salt Lake City is Nanoscience: Challenges for the Future (a topic that many of you know is near and dear to my own heart) and therefore perfect for my debut post on In Futuro, a blog covering the next generation of science. Of course, research presented at the conference also covers a wide range of chemistry and multidisciplinary topics outside nanotechnology that will also affect the future. Here are a few pieces of research that might be important to those of us without a Ph.D.

The Gold Standard

Researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz developed the first hollow gold nanospheres that many believe show promise as a minimally invasive treatment for melanoma – a disease responsible for over 8000 deaths in the United States in 2008. The group fitted the nanospheres with a special peptide (the building block of proteins) that seeks out a protein receptor in melanoma cells but ignores normal cells. When exposed to infrared light, the nanoparticles heat up and destroy the cancer cells around them.

Using light to kill cancer cells is not a new treatment – a technique called photoablation therapy has been used for many years but doesn’t distinguish between malignant and healthy cells. But add the nanoparticles to the tumor and the tiny spheres absorb most of the infrared light, heat up, and “cook” the cancer cells to death, leaving normal tissue relatively unharmed.

Although scientists have previously used various combinations of metals and shapes, hollow gold nanospheres seem to have several advantages. For one, the size of the spheres – only 30 to 50 nanometers wide – can be carefully controlled for optimal light absorption. And because they are spheres, they can more readily penetrate a cell membrane than rod-shaped nanoparticles. Finally, gold is considered much safer inside the body than other metals, although extensive toxicity tests must be performed before this technique reaches human trials.

Icy Hot

Frozen natural gas burns as easily as lighting a match. Credit: USGS

Frozen natural gas burns as easily as lighting a match. Credit: USGS

Our ever-growing list of alternative energy sources, including biofuels, hydrogen, nuclear, solar, wind and more, has a potential new addition: ice. More specifically, a frozen form of natural gas called hydrates that exist beneath the ocean floor and artic permafrost. With the right extraction and production tools, this alternative fuel could become a cost-effective and environmentally friendly supplement to current fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.

Last year, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver estimated over 85 trillion cubic feet of frozen natural gas could be extracted from a single area in Alaska, which would be enough energy to heat about 100 million homes for over a decade, according to an ACS press release. There are many such areas all over the world including Japan, India, the Gulf of Mexico and off the east coast of the United States.

Gas hydrates form when methane gas comes into contact with water at low temperatures and high pressures. Scientists have developed several ways to extract the methane – the part that actually burns – and believe that this fuel could be harvested using many of today’s oil and gas drilling technologies. Then they have to figure out how to produce it safely and scale the process to industrial levels.

Counting Carbs

While many of us are bombarded daily with conflicting advice about high-carb, low-carb, or carb-free diets, scientists in Germany know one thing for sure: carbs are good for the immune system, and they now have an easy way to synthesize them. This opens doors for treating malaria, HIV and other anti-bacterial resistant diseases.

Carbohydrates play crucial roles in the immune system, especially in the body’s defenses against disease-causing viruses and bacteria. Most of these microbes have unique carbohydrate markers on their surfaces. The immune system recognizes these carbohydrates as foreign material, and creates antibodies that launch an immune response to battle the infection.

“Vaccines ‘educate’ the immune system to recognize a specific molecule on the surface of infectious organisms,” explains [Peter H. Seeberger, the lead researcher]. “The synthesizer allows us to make not one but many carbohydrate structures from a particular organism and test those to see if they protect against the microbe. Synthetic carbohydrates that show promising protective qualities then may become the basis for new vaccines.

The device can build complex carbohydrate molecules (strings of simple sugars) in a matter of hours, a huge improvement over techniques that can take months or years. Now that they have conquered synthesis, the next step will be to sequence the molecules, similar to sequencing the human genome. Clinical trials for a malaria vaccine based on the technique are scheduled to begin in 2010 in Mozambique and Tanzania.


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