Nanotechnology – making and manipulating structures with nanometre-scale dimensions – has the potential to transform many areas of science and engineering. Professor Molly Stevens of Imperial College is carrying out research into the areas where nanomaterials and biological systems converge.
One of the fields in which she is making a big impact is tissue engineering, where artificial scaffold structures are used to grow new cells. By mimicking the nanostructure of tissues in the body, it is possible that human organs and body parts could be made or grown in the laboratory. In particular, Prof Stevens’ research has focused on growing replacement bones by using smart polymer systems.
Prof Stevens has assembled a multidisciplinary team – encompassing engineering, biology, chemistry and physics – with research interests ranging from high-resolution studies of the cell-materials interface to the novel design and engineering of biomaterials for regenerative medicine and biosensing. In the ‘NATURALE’ project, supported by an ERC Starting Grant, this expertise has been directed towards two goals.
First, the aim was to design biologically responsive peptides, which are component parts of proteins, to control the assembly and disassembly of nanostructures, as new bio-responsive materials could have important applications in bio-sensing and diagnostics. By improving bio-sensing technologies for the real-time monitoring of enzymes and other bio-chemicals, this research could impact on many diseases ranging from cancer to early HIV detection.
Prof Stevens and team member Dr Roberto de la Rica, have for instance successfully tested a pioneering ultrasensitive protein detection technique based on a plasmonic ELISA that is many orders of magnitude more sensitive than the conventional widely used ELISA technique. The new methodology, which has been tested using human samples from HIV positive patients, offers a much simpler naked eye based read-out and could be commercialised in the near future and would potentially allow much earlier diagnosis of a range of diseases. This result was published in October 2012 in Nature Nanotechnology.
Secondly, the NATURALE team sought to understand the natural biological nanostructures found in the support structures of biological tissues – the ‘scaffolding’ that supports the cells. By developing synthetic versions of these nanostructures, the research is making significant inroads into improved cell growth for tissue regeneration.
These new approaches could lead to clinical applications by, for example, helping large bone defects to heal. Greater understanding of cell differentiation and the interactions between cells and their surrounding support matrix is also of fundamental importance in understanding tissue development itself.