cancer to crops: engineering small solutions for the world's big problems<p>​From drug delivery and energy sources to agriculture and water treatment, some of the world’s largest, and the most complex problems can be solved today with the smallest, simplest structures using principles of aerosol science and technology.<br/></p><img alt="" src="/news/PublishingImages/960x0.jpg?RenditionID=1" style="BORDER:0px solid;" /><p>Because so many of these problems, while grand in scale, originate at the cellular or molecular level, there is a need to begin by thinking small when engineering a solution. Nanoparticles, which are microscopic in size, have become increasingly important in the scientific community because they have the potential to address a wide variety of issues across fields.<br/></p><p>Consider the nanoparticle a bonding agent that can create a bridge across all kinds of molecular structures and materials. As this bridge between larger materials, such as a tumor, there is immense potential to use them as powerful agents against destructive diseases. One particular application for the treatment of brain diseases and disorders shows promise.</p><p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin-top: 1.6rem; margin-bottom: 1.6rem; color: #000000; font-family: georgia, cambria, "times new roman", times, serif; font-size: 17.6px; font-variant-ligatures: common-ligatures;"></p><div style="box-sizing: border-box;"></div><p></p><p>The blood-brain barrier, which functions to protect the body’s most vital organ, also prevents treatment methods from effectively addressing brain disorders and diseases. Brain disease, for example, remains a leading cause of chronic health challenges and fatalities.  Roughly every minute, between one and two Americans are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the No. 6 leading cause of death in the United States – and the only one among the Top 10 without a cure or treatment. Depression, the most common mental disorder and the third-leading cause of disease burden worldwide, is the primary driver of suicide. Moreover, perhaps the brain could be used as a bridge for better treating depression, the primary driver of suicide, which took the lives of <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">800,000 people</a> alone in 2015, according to the World Health Organization.</p><p>While scientists, medical practitioners, drug companies and families alike are contributing time and money to massive research efforts for advancing the treatment of specific brain diseases and disorders, one major obstacle remains.  Delivering life-saving drugs directly to the brain in a safe and effective way has been a nearly insurmountable challenge for medical providers. The blood-brain barrier inhibits the delivery of drugs.  Existing treatment methods, such as an injection or a pill, aren’t as precise or immediate as doctors and patients need them to be, and direct delivery to the brain requires invasive and risky techniques.</p><div class="vestpocket" style="box-sizing: border-box; color: #000000; font-family: georgia, cambria, "times new roman", times, serif; font-size: 17.6px; font-variant-ligatures: common-ligatures;"></div><p>The need for, and opportunity to improve, drug delivery is immediate and far-reaching. Beyond just saving lives, brain disorders impact the quality of life. The diminished productivity created by brain disorders amounts to more than 10 billion lost days of work globally per year – <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">about $1 trillion USD</a> in lost economic output – and this doesn’t include the cost of treatment.</p><div style="float: left; width: 293px; margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px; font-size: 0.9em; text-align: center; font-style: italic;"> <img src="/Profiles/PublishingImages/Biswas_Pratim.JPG?RenditionID=7" alt="" style="margin: 5px;"/><br/>Pratim Biswas</div><p>So how do we solve this problem? As we found in recent research, one surprising new avenue may well come through the nose, delivering drugs with a simple sniff. In the form of nanoparticles, non-invasive nasal spray, this method could allow for a therapeutic dose of medicine to reach the brain within 30 minutes to one hour.  By delivering drugs via nanoparticles that can cross the blood-brain barrier, doctors could ensure less risk and better response time for patient treatment and recovery.  We first tested this method in a locust, because it has a simple, but similar anatomical blood-brain barrier and its olfactory pathway is a popular model for neural coding and behavior. The early research has shown promising results with effective delivery and minimal to no tissue damage.<br/></p><p>Nanoparticles are transforming biomedical research, but their impact is not limited to this field. Beyond their role in drug delivery, nanoparticles have the potential to disrupt agriculture practices for more efficient and safer production of food sources. Food production and its nutritional quality is a challenge for the global population, projected to cross 9 billion by 2050, placing a high demand on food production with ever limiting natural resources.</p><div style="float: left; width: 293px; margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px; font-size: 0.9em; text-align: center; font-style: italic;"> <img src="/news/PublishingImages/Raliya_Ramesh.JPG?RenditionID=7" alt="" style="margin: 5px;"/><br/>Ramesh Raliya</div><p>Nanoparticles are transforming biomedical research, but their impact is not limited to this field. Beyond their role in drug delivery, nanoparticles have the potential to disrupt agriculture practices for more efficient and safer production of food sources. Food production and its nutritional quality is a challenge for the global population, projected to cross 9 billion by 2050, placing a high demand on food production with ever limiting natural resources.</p><p>Farmers spread fertilizer on their fields, to replenish nutrients. It’s is certainly not the ideal and sustainable way to farm, but it’s thought to be the most efficient for large-scale farms. Therefore, farmers end up buying more and paying more every year for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium nutrients, popularly known as NPK fertilizer. Due to poor use efficiency of existing fertilizers, farmers are incapable of maximizing crop production, despite increased fertilizer consumption. The main challenges with current fertilizers are low uptake efficiency and loss by leaching into the environment, requiring farmers to apply more fertilizer per acre (27-40 kg), resulting in ~40% more cost per acre. Also, the excess fertilizer being applied to the soil affects the population of beneficial soil microbes, thus lowering the nutrient uptake. Furthermore, fertilizer runoff causes environmental pollution. Unused fertilizer (>50%) causes eutrophication, requiring additional resources of about $10 billion to clean the water in natural systems.</p><p>To avoid the food crisis and inefficient use of fertilizers, we have created <a href="/news/Pages/Nanoparticles-present-sustainable-way-to-grow-food-crops.aspx" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">zinc oxide nanoparticles</a> from a fungus around a plant’s root that helps the plant mobilize and take up the nutrients from the soil. When applied to the leaves of a mung bean plant, a legume grown mainly in China, Southeast Asia, and India, where 60 percent of the population is vegetarian and relies on plant-based protein sources, the nanoparticles increased the uptake of the phosphorus by nearly 11 percent. This application reduces the amount of phosphorus required to fertilize the soil and activates other enzymes to support plant growth.  Further, we developed smart fertilizers consisting of <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">NPK nanocomposites</a> and optimized the delivery approach for controlled release and enhanced utilization by the plants.  The smart fertilizer showed great potential to increase yield, biomass, and nutritional value for cereals, legumes, vegetables and other horticulture crops.</p><p>Whether it’s targeting a brain tumor or preparing for the expected increase in global population, and therefore an increased need for food production, aerosol scientists and engineers are working toward the next big breakthrough with the smallest solutions.<br/></p><p>​<br/></p><p><br/></p><div class="cstm-section"><h3>Nanoparticles Research by <br/>WashU Engineers<br/></h3><div> <strong></strong></div><p><a href="/news/Pages/A-simple-sniff.aspx">Nanoparticle research tested in locusts focuses on new drug-delivery method</a><br/></p><p><a href="/news/Pages/Novel-nanoparticle-made-of-common-mineral-may-keep-tumor-growth-at-bay.aspx">Calcium carbonate: A new weapon in fighting tumors</a><br/></p><p><a href="/news/Pages/Nanoparticles-present-sustainable-way-to-grow-food-crops.aspx">Nanoparticles present sustainable way to grow food crops</a><br/></p></div>Pratim Biswas & Ramesh Raliya, guest contributors to Forbes drug delivery to agriculture and water treatment, some of the world’s largest problems can be solved with the smallest structures. Pratim Biswas and Ramesh Raliya explain how in Forbes. WashU research teams win LEAP Inventor Challenge Awards<p>​Five Washington University in St. Louis research teams have been selected to receive funding as part of the Summer 2017 cycle of the Leadership in Entrepreneurial Acceleration Program, better known as the <a href="">LEAP Inventor Challenge</a> (LEAP). The challenge’s facilitators anticipate investing more than a quarter million dollars in this cycle’s winners.<br/></p><img alt="" src="/news/PublishingImages/WashU%20Engineering%20LEAP%20Entrepreneurship%20Inventors.png?RenditionID=1" style="BORDER:0px solid;" /><p>LEAP exists to propel Washington University intellectual property towards commercialization. The money that teams win helps fund their early stage research so that they can turn their concepts and ideas into viable products and services. The competition supports all Washington University faculty, postdoc, staff and graduate student teams. The winning teams include three teams with ties to WashU Engineering:<br/></p><p><br/></p><p><br/></p><p><br/></p><span style="color: #666666; font-family: "libre baskerville", "times new roman", serif; font-size: 1.25em;">A Cellular Delivery Systems for the Treatment and Imaging of Cancer</span><p>This a new class of immunotherapy, in which a specific stem cell population can identify and home to tumors, and serve as drug-carriers for delivery of therapeutic and imaging agents.<br/><br/>Management:<br/></p><div><ul><li><strong>Kareem Azab, BPharm, (Lead Investigator), Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology; Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering</strong><br/></li><li>Barbara Muz, PharmD, PhD, Senior Scientist, Department of Radiation Oncology<br/></li></ul></div><p rtenodeid="8"></p><font color="#a51b28"><span style="font-size: 18px;"><br/></span></font><span style="color: #666666; font-family: "libre baskerville", "times new roman", serif; font-size: 1.25em;">Smart Fertilizers for Sustainable Agriculture</span><p>This project develops smart fertilizers for agricultural crops that provide highly efficient nutrients at low-cost and an eco-friendly alternative to conventional methods. This offers a great potential to tailor fertilizer production with the desired chemical composition, improve the nutrient use efficiency that may reduce environmental impact and boost the plant productivity.<br/><br/>Management:</p><p></p><div><ul><li><strong>Ramesh Raliya, (Lead Investigator), Research Scientist, School of Engineering & Applied Science</strong><br/></li><li><strong>Pratim Biswas, Assistant Vice Chancellor & Department Chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering; Lucy and Stanley Lopata Professor of Environmental Engineering Science</strong><br/></li></ul></div><p rtenodeid="9"></p><font color="#a51b28"><span style="font-size: 18px;"><br/></span></font><span style="color: #666666; font-family: "libre baskerville", "times new roman", serif; font-size: 1.25em;">Anion exchange membranes for water desalination and energy applications</span><p>This project uses anion exchange membranes for energy and water desalination applications, aiming to disrupt the current energy and water purification landscape.<br/><br/>Management:<br/></p><p></p><div><ul><li><strong>Vijay Ramani, (Lead Investigator), Roma B. & Raymond H. Wittcoff Distinguished University Professor of Environment & Energy, Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering</strong><br/></li><li><strong>Shrihari Sankarasubramanian, Research Associate, electrochemical engineering, Department of Energy, Environmental &Chemical Engineering</strong><br/></li></ul></div><p>Think you have what it takes? Apply for the next cycle of the LEAP Inventor Challenge <a href="">through the Skandalaris Center.</a><br/></p>Several university departments work together on LEAP to maximize industry engagement and funding opportunities.Shauna Williams, skandalaris.wustl.edu winning teams include three teams with ties to WashU Engineering and include a new way to use smart fertilizers for sustainable agriculture. engineer to design model to regulate gene expression<p>​Biological engineers and scientists who work in cellular engineering and molecular biology may soon have a new reliable tool to use to regulate gene expression in bacteria.<br/></p><img alt="" src="/Profiles/PublishingImages/Moon_Tae-Seok.jpg?RenditionID=1" style="BORDER:0px solid;" /><div id="__publishingReusableFragmentIdSection"><a href="/ReusableContent/36_.000">a</a></div><p><a href="/Profiles/Pages/Tae-Seok-Moon.aspx">Tae Seok Moon</a>, an expert in synthetic biology at Washington University in St. Louis, has received a three-year, $425,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a tool that will act as a gene regulator. This regulator is called antisense ribonucleic acid (asRNA), a small RNA used to block production of specific proteins when it is bound to messenger RNA (mRNA), which convey genetic information to other parts of cells.</p><p style="color: #000000; font-family: "times new roman"; font-size: medium;"></p><p>Although asRNA naturally exists in many bacteria, it has been used in a limited number of bacteria to engineer their cellular processes, and Moon wants to provide the research community with a generalizable RNA regulator and its design principle.</p><p style="color: #000000; font-family: "times new roman"; font-size: medium;"></p><p>“I want to develop a generalizable RNA regulator that can be used to understand and engineer diverse biotechnologically important bacteria,” said Moon, an assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering. “I want to expand the RNA regulator by developing its design principle. In other words, I aim to determine what would be a reliable regulator to repress the gene expression in an efficient and predictable way.”</p><p style="color: #000000; font-family: "times new roman"; font-size: medium;"></p><p>Once he develops the regulator, he plans to test it in different bacteria, then build a predictive model. Once the model is tested, he will then make it available to other engineers and scientists who investigate and engineer diverse cellular processes, including gene regulation, metabolism and pathogenesis.</p><p style="color: #000000; font-family: "times new roman"; font-size: medium;"></p><p>In addition, Moon will create teaching kits for local high school science teachers to introduce synthetic biology.<br/></p><SPAN ID="__publishingReusableFragment"></SPAN><p><br/></p>Tae Seok MoonBeth Miller2017-08-24T05:00:00ZTae Seok Moon, an expert in synthetic biology, has received a three-year, $425,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a tool that will act as a gene regulator. implications: Engineer’s model lays groundwork for machine-learning device<p>​In what could be a small step for science potentially leading to a breakthrough, an engineer at Washington University in St. Louis has taken steps toward using nanocrystal networks for artificial intelligence applications. <br/></p><img alt="" src="/news/PublishingImages/AI%20Thimsen.PNG?RenditionID=1" style="BORDER:0px solid;" /><div id="__publishingReusableFragmentIdSection"><a href="/ReusableContent/36_.000">a</a></div><p> <a href="/Profiles/Pages/Elijah-Thimsen.aspx">Elijah Thimsen</a>, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and his collaborators have developed a model in which to test existing theories about how electrons move through nanomaterials. This model may lay the foundation for using nanomaterials in a machine learning device. </p><p>"When one builds devices out of nanomaterials, they don't always behave like they would for a bulk material," Thimsen said. "One of the things that changes dramatically is the way in which these electrons move through material, called the electron transport mechanism, but it's not well understood how that happens."</p> <p>Thimsen and his team based the model on an unusual theory that every nanoparticle in a network is a node that is connected to every other node, not only its immediate neighbors. Equally unusual is that the current flowing through the nodes doesn't necessarily occupy the spaces between the nodes — it needs only to pass through the nodes themselves. This behavior, which is predicted by the model, produces experimentally observable current hotspots at the nanoscale, the researcher said.</p><p>In addition, the team looked at another model called a neural network, based on the human brain and nervous system. Scientists have been working to build new computer chips to emulate these networks, but these chips are far short of the human brain, which contains up to 100 billion nodes and 10,000 connections per node.</p><p>"If we have a huge number of nodes — much larger than anything that exists — and a huge number of connections, how do we train it?" Thimsen asks. "We want to get this large network to perform something useful, such as a pattern-recognition task."</p><p>Based on those network theories, Thimsen has proposed an initial project to design a simple chip, give it particular inputs and study the outputs. </p><p>"If we treat it as a neural network, we want to see if the output from the device will depend on the input," Thimsen said. "Once we can prove that, we'll take the next step and propose a new device that allows us to train this system to perform a simple pattern-recognition task."</p><p>The results of their work were published in advanced online publication of <em>The Journal of Physical Chemistry C</em>.<br/></p><p>Chen Q, Guest J, Thimsen E. "Visualizing Current Flow at the Mesoscale in Disordered Assemblies of Touching Semiconductor Nanocrystals." <em>The Journal of Physical Chemistry C</em>. Advanced online publication. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcc.7b04949</p><p>Funding for this research was provided by Washington University in St. Louis. <br/></p> <SPAN ID="__publishingReusableFragment"></SPAN><br/>​<br/><br/><br/> <div><div class="cstm-section"><h3>Elijah Thimsen<br/></h3><div style="text-align: center;"> <strong> <a href="/Profiles/Pages/Elijah-Thimsen.aspx"> <img src="/Profiles/PublishingImages/Thimsen_Elijah.jpg?RenditionID=3" alt="Elijah Thimsen" style="margin: 5px;"/></a> <br/> </strong> </div><div style="text-align: center;"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">Assistant Professor<br/>Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering<br/><a href="/Profiles/Pages/Elijah-Thimsen.aspx">>> View Bio</a></span></div><div style="text-align: center;"></div></div> <br/> </div><div> <span> <div class="cstm-section"><h3>Media Coverage<br/></h3><div> <strong>ECN Magazine: </strong><a href="">AI Implications: Engineer's Model Lays Groundwork For Machine-Learning Device</a><br/></div></div></span> <br/> </div>(a) Every nanocrystal is connected to every other nanocrystal by variable resistances. (b) The massively parallel network of variable resistances produces electrical current hotspots separated by large distances.Beth Miller 2017-08-17T05:00:00ZIn what could be a small step for science potentially leading to a breakthrough, an engineer at Washington University in St. Louis has taken steps toward using nanocrystal networks for artificial intelligence applications. coal research yields three additional research grants<p>​Suppose the byproducts of coal-burning power plants could supply much-needed underground water to parched soil in arid parts of the world. Suppose they could contribute to secondary fuel sources for developing countries in dire need of transportation fuels. Now suppose this could be done while producing electricity with minimal emissions.<br/></p><img alt="" src="/news/PublishingImages/WashU%20engineering%20Clean%20Power%20Plan.jpg?RenditionID=1" style="BORDER:0px solid;" /><div id="__publishingReusableFragmentIdSection"><a href="/ReusableContent/36_.000">a</a></div><p>​These sorts of breakthroughs are within scientists' grasp at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, where pioneering work in coal research has generated millions in research funding. That includes more than $2.6 million in the last year alone from three grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and one from the National Science Foundation.</p><p>While those ancillary breakthroughs are possible, WashU researchers primarily focus on improving efficiency and reducing carbon and other emissions from coal-burning plants, which generate 40 percent of worldwide electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. Coal accounts for more than 30 percent of U.S. electricity generation and for more than 77 percent in Missouri. In China, the number exceeds 70 percent.</p><p>"Coal is ubiquitous throughout the world and is our most reliable and secure source of energy, but it has environmental challenges," said <a href="/Profiles/Pages/Richard-Axelbaum.aspx">Richard Axelbaum, the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science and director of the university's Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization.</a> "We have to develop technologies that allow us to address these challenges but are affordable."</p><blockquote>WashU is leading the way thanks to groundbreaking technology that puts the coal-fired process in a pressurized environment, which can dramatically improve plant efficiency. </blockquote><p>It also allows for the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas so that it can be pumped and stored underground — keeping the greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere.</p><p>"The technology we are developing is futuristic and promising," Axelbaum said. "That has generated considerable interest from the Department of Energy."</p><p>That excitement has amounted to almost $8 million in DOE funding in the past five years. In most cases, the research money is flowing directly to WashU. In others, the university is included in a research partnerships to develop the technology.</p><p>The technology that interests the DOE and other coal experts is called Staged Pressurized Oxy-Combustion (SPOC). Researchers are demonstrating the technology's ability to scale up from a laboratory-scale testing environment to real-world utility scale, while achieving greater power-plant efficiency and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. But it also has spun off related research.</p><p>For example, <a href="/Profiles/Pages/Pratim-Biswas.aspx">Pratim Biswas, the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor, assistant vice chancellor for international programs and chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering</a>, received a portion of one recent grant — about $600,000 — to research technologies to better capture and repurpose carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the exhaust of these advanced coal plants.<br/></p><p>"We will need a lot of energy throughout the world, particularly in certain parts of the world that are still developing," Biswas said. "They have to be able to use these fuels in a clean manner."</p><p>Since establishing the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization in 2009, WashU scientists have solidified the university's leadership in coal research. </p><blockquote>"We went from having very modest research funding for coal in 2009 to about $25 million expended or committed since then, involving 20 WashU faculty and 18 international collaborators," Axelbaum said.</blockquote> <p>WashU also is a key partner in the DOE-sponsored U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), which "allows us to interact with our colleagues in China more proactively," Biswas said. "These partners are from institutions such as Tsinghua University, a partner of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy." </p><p>Biswas also noted the need to address coal-related pollution in China. In addition, researchers can test their technology in full-scale plants.</p><p>"China has an urgent need for clean power and has the ability to accelerate the implementation of these technologies," Axelbaum said. </p><p>The DOE and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology established the CERC in 2009 to foster collaboration between the two countries. </p><p>At one point in 2015, The New York Times reported that Chinese regulators had approved construction of 155 new coal-fired plants — dwarfing the number of such plants in the United States. Only recently has China curbed its appetite for massive coal plant expansion.</p><p>WashU researchers also have ties to India, and CCCU has supported collaborative research with colleagues at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay. In June 2017, researchers from WashU, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi co-organized a workshop focused on addressing challenges and identifying technological solutions. The workshop attracted personnel from the Ministries of Power and Coal and other governmental agencies, along with several from industry.  </p><p>To Axelbaum, the research is critical. Developing technologies to pump and store CO2 deep underground can pay dividends by helping to tap water or oil resources previously out of reach. The SPOC process itself also produces water, which, if captured and purified, can help to address water shortages in chronically dry parts of the world, such as Africa.</p><p>In fact, he said, coal's abundance and the ease with which it can be transported represents economic opportunity for those same parts of the globe. </p><p>"Africa is a great example," Axelbaum said. "History has consistently shown that economies grow when they have reliable energy. Coal offers reliable energy, and Africa — particularly South Africa — has a lot of coal, but technologies such as SPOC are needed to produce this energy without damaging the environment."<br/></p> <SPAN ID="__publishingReusableFragment"></SPAN> <p> <br/> </p>​ <div>​<br/></div><div> <br/> </div><div> <br/> <div class="cstm-section"><h3>Collaborators</h3><div style="text-align: center;"> <strong><a href="/Profiles/Pages/Richard-Axelbaum.aspx"><img src="/Profiles/PublishingImages/Axelbaum_Richard.jpg?RenditionID=3" alt="Richard Axelbaum" style="margin: 5px;"/></a><br/><a href="/Profiles/Pages/Richard-Axelbaum.aspx"><strong>Richard Axelbaum</strong></a><br/> </strong> </div><div style="text-align: center;"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">Professor<br/>Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering</span></div><div> <strong> <br/> </strong> </div><div style="text-align: center;"> <strong><a href="/Profiles/Pages/Pratim-Biswas.aspx"><img src="/Profiles/PublishingImages/Biswas_Pratim.JPG?RenditionID=3" alt="" style="margin: 5px;"/></a>​​</strong> </div><div style="text-align: center;"> <strong> <a href="/Profiles/Pages/Pratim-Biswas.aspx"> <strong>Pratim Biswas</strong></a></strong> </div><div style="text-align: center;"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">Professor<br/>Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering</span></div></div>  <br/></div>Since establishing the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization in 2009, WashU scientists have solidified the university's leadership in coal research.Kurt Greenbaum2017-08-14T05:00:00ZSince establishing the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization in 2009, WashU scientists have solidified the university's leadership in coal research.