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Nanobiotechnology June 2014 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Lucy Young

Synthetic Antibody Analogs

Why is this topic significant?

Nanotechnology is creating a great number of potential advances in medicine. The possibility of making analogs of antibodies could have implications for a number of applications aside from medicine, including sensors. However, this possibility and many of these advances are in the earliest stages of development.

Description

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created specific synthetic heteropolymers and combined them with carbon nanotubes (CNTs) to form antibody-like sensing devices. Previous research has fused antibodies with CNTs and used the natural fluorescence of CNTs to indicate the presence of a specific molecule. CNTs fluoresce under laser light, and the interaction of the target molecule with the antibodies increases or decreases the fluorescence. The MIT researchers have created analogs for the antibodies by using amphiphilic polymers—which they can design to have specific molecular-recognition sites—to cover the CNTs, enabling the possibility of creating "synthetic antibodies." The hydrophobic region of the polymer attaches to the CNT; the hydrophilic part extends out from the tubes in loops to form a new layer. The spacing of the polymer along the CNT determines which target molecule wedges into the loops and is therefore detectable.

Theoretically, the scientists could design the polymer-CNT complexes to be specific for an infinite number of molecules. In their paper in Nature Nanotechnology, the scientists demonstrate sensors specific to a form of estrogen, a thyroid hormone, and riboflavin. However, the scientists could not predetermine which molecules the sensors would recognize and used trial and error to discover the target molecule of each sensor.

Implications

The MIT scientists suggest that their sensors could find use in monitoring a number of diseases, including diabetes, inflammation, and cancer. Indeed, these "synthetic antibodies" offer the possibility of the creation of sensors that can detect a much wider variety of molecules than can antibody-based sensors. Furthermore, the polymers will be more durable than antibodies and so could find use in a variety of environments—including those outside the body. However, the inability to predict which molecules each polymer-CNT complex detects could result in problems. For example, the scientists cannot yet predict whether other molecules that they are not targeting will interfere with the sensor—which could cause issues in the practical use of the sensors in complex environments such as the human body.

Impacts/Disruptions

Although this technology is in the early stages of development, it shows promise as a useful tool for a broad range of applications in which both antibodies and biosensors sense today. One important application could be in immunotherapy. Currently, pharmaceutical companies are feverishly researching and developing immunotherapies—which often include using antibodies—particularly for the treatment of cancer. The technology to create synthetic antibody analogs could be a game changer, enabling faster development of immunotherapies and better treatments.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Pharmaceuticals, health, defense, environment, water, food

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Growth in Biomimicry

Why is this topic significant?

The amount of research into biomimicry—the imitation of systems present in nature—is increasing. As the understanding of natural systems expands, nanotechnology will likely play an important role in the creation of biomimetic technologies.

According to the DaVinci Index—a tool developed by Point Loma Nazarene University's Fermanian Business & Economic Institute in San Diego, California, to quantify the impact of biomimicry in the United States—the number of biomimicry-related patents, academic articles, and research grants has seen a five-and-a-half-fold increase since 2000. Although bioinspired designs have found use in a wide range of products—for example, Velcro, which mimics the hooked structures of burrs—the advent of nanotechnology is enabling the imitation of more elaborate designs present in nature than before.

For example, researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio investigated the hydrophobic nature of Australian brush turkey eggs. They discovered that the shells of the eggs have a layer of calcite nanospheres. These nanospheres cause the shell to repel water more strongly than do eggs of many other birds. By repelling the water, the shell slows the progression of microbes through the shell and helps to protect the egg from infection. According to the researchers, the design of the shell could find use in the creation of novel antimicrobial surfaces and medical instruments.

Implications

According to the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute's Bioinspiration report in 2013, biomimetic technology could result in $425 billion in gross domestic product for the United States. However, the success of biomimetic technologies depends on the technology's being lower in cost, better in performance, or more environmentally friendly than an existing technology. Research into the understanding of natural processes will likely increase, and nanotechnology will find use in the re-creation of these processes for advancing materials and products.

Impacts/Disruptions

Biomimetic technologies could find use in a wide variety of applications, including in medical devices and packaging. Research is already under way to develop a biomimetic sunscreen and synthetic blood. Three-dimensional printing could have a significant impact on the development of biomimetic technologies because—as additive-manufacturing technologies improve—it could enable the creation of ever-more-complex structures using nanotechnologies.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 15 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Medicine, agriculture, defense, energy, consumer goods, packaging

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: