Inorganic Nanomaterial Applications in the Life Sciences
Inorganic nanomaterials are becoming more commercially prevalent in life science applications as it becomes apparent that they can provide a significant enhancement over existing strategies. These materials are being exploited in a wide range of life sciences applications like diagnostics, imaging, medical devices, implants, coatings, wearable sensors, therapeutics and drug delivery applications – some of which are outlined in greater detail below.
Diagnostics encompass a fast-growing area, including point of care (POC) biosensors and lab-on-a-chip (LOAC) devices that can be used to diagnose if a patient has specific disease, virus or ailment. The high electrical conductivities of some inorganic nanomaterials, coupled with their increased surface area, have made numerous inorganic nanomaterials an ideal sensing surface. Functionalizing the nanomaterials with biological receptors has become a common approach for creating highly sensitive and specific POC and LOAC devices.
One of the main reasons that companies are moving towards POC diagnostics is because there is a drive for quick, accurate, reliable, and cost-effective results—something which was showcased all too well during the COVID-19 outbreak. To date, the main inorganic nanomaterials used in POC and LAOC devices are gold, silver, and zinc oxide nanoparticles as well as quantum dots. The small size and inherent flexibility of nanomaterials has also opened the field of flexible and wearable sensors that can be used to track a patient’s health in real-time.
Modern-day imaging technologies strive to obtain the highest resolutions possible. Many scientists are now using these tools to explore small biomolecules in detail, as well as to look at the structure of various tissues and organs, oftentimes for signs of damage or disease. This enhanced imaging also provides a better fundamental understanding of the many biological processes that underpin the everyday function of our bodies and other organisms.
No field better highlights the rapid use of inorganic nanomaterials than bioimaging. These materials have aided advances in contrast agents for both magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT), as well as fluorescent and luminescent probes for optical imaging techniques. For MRI applications, the use of superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles can improve detection sensitivity, while also producing less side effects than the standard gadolinium-based materials. Similarly, various lanthanides have been explored for their ability to improve detection and reduce cost and toxicity in CT imaging. Importantly, unlike the previous state of the art materials used in these imaging technologies, nanoparticles can be functionalized with various biomolecules and receptors. This allows for higher degrees of molecular targeting and specificity and in some cases, lower dosages requirements.
Antimicrobial Coatings for Medical Devices, Implants and Healthcare Settings
The unfortunate and rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant healthcare-acquired infections (HAI) has become a critical issue that the healthcare industry has been working to address. Bacterial, fungal, and viral infections pose potential dangers to healthcare patients, especially when undergoing treatment. These pathogens represent a threat in both the healthcare facility setting, as well as in any clinical materials utilized for short- and long-term medical care, from bandages and wound dressings to surgical implants and medical devices. With the rise in HAI’s, attention has turned to new technologies, including nanomaterials, to solve this seemingly intractable problem.
There are a number of inorganic nanoparticles in use today which have antimicrobial properties. These materials are being coated onto surfaces or directly incorporated into various substrates, providing a durable long-lasting solution. Nanomaterials can additionally be incorporated onto the surface of implants and devices in an effort to prevent biofilm formation in the body. Furthermore, in some cases, the actual implant is built with metallic or ceramic nanocomposites, making incorporation or coating more facile. Common examples of inorganic nanomaterials used in antimicrobial applications in the healthcare environment and implant and medical device coating include titanium oxide, silver, zinc oxide, and copper.
Drug Delivery and Therapeutics
Perhaps the earliest and most well-known examples of utilizing nanomaterials in life sciences and therapeutics is seen in the enhancement of drug delivery approaches. Therapeutic payloads that would otherwise be too toxic to administer to the entire body (e.g. – chemotherapy), can be encapsulated and directed to the target treatment area with a high degree of specificity. While this has typically been achieved using nano-scale polymers or liposomes, there are many inorganic materials that are also being explored for their drug delivery capabilities – from metals, to nanoclays and silica. Such nanoform drugs are typically carried by the inorganic delivery agent, where they are protected until an external stimulus triggers their release at the target area. Similar to imaging technologies, nanoparticles can be surface functionalized with molecules such as receptors, ligands, or antibodies in order to target the nanoparticles to interact directly with the desired ligands, receptors, antigens or biomarkers at the desired target locations, allowing highly specific delivery of the drug payload.
While nanoparticles play a critical role in technologies to deliver therapeutic payloads of conventional drug molecules, inorganic nanoparticles are also being employed directly as therapeutics that make use of their unique properties. Some of the common examples used for therapeutics include gold, silver, ceria and iron-based nanoparticles. In these cases, the inherent properties of the nanoparticle are exploited for therapeutic treatment. This includes the photothermal and radiosensitizing properties of gold in cancer treatments, the free-radical scavenging capabilities of ceria nanoparticles for a host of diseases and injuries displaying oxidative damage, and the magnetic and photothermal characteristics of iron oxide nanoparticles. Also, as previously noted, the small size and ease of surface functionalization make these nanoparticles highly amenable for targeting to specific cells and tissues for therapeutic treatment. All of these inorganic materials have their own distinct targeting and therapeutic mechanisms, but their use as therapies is growing now that their potential has been uncovered.
Utilizing the myriad unique properties and behaviors of inorganic nanomaterials presents a significant opportunity to create new tools that enhance existing approaches or solve previously intractable problems in life sciences and pharma applications. The ability to fine-tune and optimize these materials is both a crucial requirement and benefit to these applications, where highly specific parameters are often required in order to maintain biocompatibility and performance. For more than a decade, companies around the globe have relied on Cerion for the development of metal, metal oxide and ceramic nanomaterials to enhance the performance of their products or systems. Cerion’s approach provides a dedicated team and full product lifecycle support for the precision design, robust scale-up and high-volume manufacturing of nanomaterials for our customers who are leveraging them in their products or systems. Our team of experts work to understand your specific application, processing conditions and desired end-state of the nanoparticle to design a custom-tailored solution that will seamlessly integrate into your product.