The Future of Nanotechnology

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Prabir Patra envisions a transformation in technology and medicine through the use of biologically-inspired nanostructures.
Inspiration from nature and the desire to push the boundaries of science are strong research motivators for Prabir Patra, Ph.D., chair of the Biomedical Engineering department and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. Biologically-inspired nanomaterials are the focus of his research because, as Patra asserts, bacteria are one of the smallest engineers in the world and so, potentially, one can accomplish massive feats through harnessing their efforts. Equally fascinating is graphene, a homogeneous, two-dimensional, anatomically thin, honeycomb-shaped carbon crystal structure that transcends most scientific laws and norms. According to Patra, graphene’s unique properties could have significant implications for drug delivery, among other uses. For example, a lubricating gel made from graphene could help decrease the amount of friction in drug delivery systems, which could transform medicine and the drug industry. In general, Patra selects projects that could change the way many physiological regulatory functions operate in medicine.

Accordingly, Patra’s involved in multiple research projects taking place on campus and across the U.S., in collaboration with researchers at institutions such as Rice University, University of Texas at Dallas, Lamar University, Wesleyan University, the University of Connecticut, and MIT. All the projects include participation of UB students. While his group members are widely separated by geography and different research team colleagues, the prefix “nano” is usually common denominator. Patra came to UB in January 2009 following postdoc appointments at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Rice University. Patra has numerous high quality publications in the area of nanotechnology and biomedical engineering. He also developed and chairs UB’s biomedical engineering department that started in 2010 and currently enrolls close to 80 students in its master’s degree program.

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Patra’s findings about biologically inspired nano-medicine include:

  1. Single cell biomechanics of stress pathways has the potential to lend itself to the detection of very small levels of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a strong indicator for the onset of heart disease. CRP is a marker for non-specific inflammation; cardiologists currently measure high sensitivity CRP (hs-CRP) at the milligram per liter level in the bloodstream. So the ability to measure significantly smaller levels of CRP would further aid cardiologists and other heart disease specialists. Patra is developing an extremely sensitive level of CRP detection by way of nano-particle layering of antigens and antibodies on a graphene chip that can bind CRP and produce measurable detection at the femtogram level for early disease prediction. For perspective, one femtogram is equal to one million nanograms, and one nanogram is equal to one million milligrams.
  2. Topical drug delivery incorporating graphene has the potential to selectively move the drug to a predetermined location by utilizing graphene’s conductivity property. A current is passed through a wire to the graphene, which then heats the polymer chains and moves the drug that is suspended in the gel.
  3. 3-D printing has the potential to be adapted for tissue engineering. In collaboration with researchers at the University of Connecticut, Patra is investigating ways body tissue regeneration can be mimicked with 3-D printing.
  4. Graphene’s binding property has the potential to help remove disease-producing substances in vivo. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the Amyloid beta (Aβ)−40 peptide is the major peptide that forms the Alzheimer’s-causing plaque in the brain. Working with researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Wesleyan University and the University of Miami, Patra and colleagues hope to harness graphene’s binding association with the Aβ−40 peptide as a mechanism to remove the plaque and potentially reverse the course of the effects of Alzheimer’s.
  5. Non-invasive tuberculosis testing may be possible, which would be a tremendous boost for testing in developing nations. A layer-by-layer, paper-based test using “invisible ink” comprised of a gel sensing protein is being developed to measure TB-associated protein in urine. The test would take about eight to 10 minutes to process.

Patra recently brought a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) subaward to UB in collaboration with Connecticut Analytical Corporation, a Connecticut-based business specializing in instrument design, applied research, and medical diagnostic investigation. Patra’s role in the project is to research graphene and other physical forms of carbon as they interact with biological molecules. This $1.1 million collaborative grant also involves Yale University, MIT, Case Western University, and Harvard University.In addition to his involvement in research and teaching, Patra has also published promising research results in high quality papers. In December 2013, Patra and collaborators from Lamar University and Rice University published his startling findings in the prestigious journal,Nature Communications. The article, “Water Tribology on Graphene,” is a report on the unique frictional behavior of graphene that could pave the way for biomedical lubricants and cosmetics. In April 2013, Patra and his collaborator from Rice University again published their seminal work on “Dynamic Self-Stiffening in Liquid Crystalline Elastomers” in Nature Communications. Their unique findings are contributing to research in the development of self-healing, biocompatible and adaptive biomaterials for tissue replacement. Patra recently joined the editorial board of JSM Biotechnology and Biomedical Engineering, andISRN Nanomaterials; both are open access, international, peer-reviewed, online academic journals.

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An intense passion to unlock the secrets of nanotechnology in part for medical applications drives Patra’s research focus. This intersection of nano-scale invention and medicine has the potential for diagnostic and treatment transformations. Whether it is graphene or other biologically inspired nanostructures, Patra’s interest is in how they might be used as new tools for the diagnosis of disease in developing countries, new methods of drug delivery, or for artificial tissue. Conducting research with colleagues at UB and elsewhere, and with the close involvement of his students, will continue to consume Patra’s time and energy as he seeks to investigate and harness the potential of this newer frontier in science.

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