July 27, 2006

Constellation Of Science Stars

By: by Eric Anderson, Business Editor, Times Union


ALBANY -- The University at Albany's on-campus expertise in semiconductor fabrication is also finding applications in the biosciences, with disposable biochips that can test blood or detect the presence of viruses now under development at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

The college is creating a new nanobioscience "constellation" of faculty that will apply nanoscale techniques and principles to biological and biomedical procedures, said Alain Kaloyeros, vice president and chief administrative officer at the college.

James Castracane, a professor of nanoscience and director of the New York State Center for Advanced Technology in Nanomaterials and Nanoelectronics, will lead the new constellation, Kaloyeros said Tuesday.

The college's constellations are groups of faculty from different disciplines who work together on common problems. Three others -- in nanoscience, nano-engineering and nano-economics -- already have been created.

While the thrust of Albany NanoTech's research has been on ways to further shrink the circuitry on a microprocessor and to improve the fabrication of the small chips, researchers also have designed biochips no larger than half-an-inch square that can test blood at levels of sensitivity not possible with traditional lab tests, Kaloyeros said.

Another chip, a "cell in a well," can detect the presence of biological agents, toxins or other substances.

And researchers are working on advanced radio frequency identification tags that contain tens of millions of transistors, allowing them to store large amounts of data, such as an individual's medical records.

One scientist, Anand Gadre, who also is an assistant professor at the college, is developing disposable polymer chips that can be used to detect certain viruses with nothing more than a saliva test. Development is in the early stages, but Gadre hopes to have a workable chip by the end of 2007.

Kaloyeros, citing figures from industry monitor Lux Research, said the market for nanotech products is projected to grow to $2.6 trillion in 2014 from $13 billion in 2004, thanks in large part to new applications in health care, the life sciences, medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

Other researchers have talked of using nanoscale particles to transport drugs to targeted cells, such as tumors, to destroy them while minimizing damage to surrounding cells. Mauro Ferrari, a leading researcher in nanomedicine at Ohio State University, discussed such an approach during an appearance in Albany in January.

The attraction of nanotech drugs were their ability to overcome biological barriers, or the "border patrol" that cells erect to keep drugs out, said Ferrari, who has since been recruited by the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

But Kaloyeros isn't sold on the approach. He cautions that techniques using nano-size capsules to introduce drugs to targeted human cells come with their own risks.

"We don't know yet the health implications of what a nanoparticle could do when it's inserted inside a human cell," Kaloyeros said. "We have to be very careful in dealing with the environmental safety and health issues."

Materials at the nanoscale -- a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter -- often behave differently than they do in larger quantities, he said. A drug at that scale, for example, may be far more potent or may have other unexpected properties, Kaloyeros said.

The National Institutes of Health are establishing Nanomedicine Development Centers that will pursue the NIH's Nanomedicine Roadmap Initiative, which includes the use of molecular-sized pumps that would offer precise delivery of medicine to particular cells and ways to isolate and destroy individual tumor cells.

Like the effort at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, these NIH-funded centers will include multidisciplinary research teams.