Pioneering nanotechnologies used in experimental medical applications in the United Kingdom

London, Leicester, Southampton 16 April 2009The London Centre for Nanotechnology will develop a new device to enable people living with HIV to monitor their own health and the effectiveness of their treatments, thanks to a GBP 2 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) grant. Nanotechnology is being used by academics at the University of Southampton to develop low-cost, disposable blood-testing kits that can be made available in General Practitioners' surgeries. And a multi-disciplinary team of scientists from the University of Leicester could be potentially paving the way for the development of a powerful new strategy for both the early diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer.


The University of Leicester research is to use cutting edge nanotechnology to identify a pioneering treatment which could also be applied to other aggressive cancers. The researchers say that microscopic (5-100 nm) magnetic nanoparticles could be applied in the sensitive diagnosis and effective treatment of prostate cancer. This follows breakthrough nanotechnology research at the University.

Dr. Wu Su, of the Department of Chemistry, has been awarded a grant worth GBP 321 K. This is one of only ten Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in the Life Sciences Interface area given this year by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). This is the first EPSRC postdoctoral research fellowship awarded to the University of Leicester.

The highly prestigious award will allow a multi-disciplinary research team to design high-performance magnetic nanoparticles. The team consists of researchers from the University of Leicester departments of Chemistry, Physics, Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine and Cardiovascular Sciences. High-performance magnetic nanoparticles act as probes that show up - using Magnetic Resonance Imaging - and kill - by hyperthermia - tumour cells at a much earlier stage than conventional methods.

The pioneering technology, developed at the University of Leicester, is focused on the development of a new type of magnetic nanoparticle in which the magnetic performance is increased by a factor of ten. Targeting these magnetic nanoparticles to unique cell surface receptors present on the prostate tumour cell surface will enable efficient and specific delivery to prostate cancer cells. The approach is general and it is envisaged that these systems could be applied to other types of aggressive cancers such as liver, breast, colon, in which early diagnosis and treatment is essential for recovery.

Dr. Su said this technology requires a multi-disciplinary approach: "Prostate cancer cure rates are predicated on early diagnosis and treatment. The technology that we are developing offers the potential of both the identification and treatment of prostate cancer in a highly selective manner."

Successful implementation of this technology would provide significant welfare benefits for patients, reducing the need for surgical removal of the prostate, and significant cost benefits for the United Kingdom health care system.

Dr. Su is currently a postdoctoral Research Associate in Dr. Burley's lab within the department of Chemistry and has in the past worked in prestigious institutions such as the Max Plank Institute, Germany and the Institute of Biological Chemistry, Shanghai. Dr. Su will help co-ordinate this Leicester-based research team involving Physicists, Chemists, Medics and Magnetic Resonance Imaging experts.

Professor Peter Ashburn, Head of the Nano Research Group at the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science and a team, which includes academic colleagues from the University's Schools of Medicine, Social Sciences and Chemistry, has just been awarded GBP 1.330.346 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's Nano Grand Challenge in Health Care to develop a unique method for fabricating nanowires, so that these kits can be mass produced. This will mean that routine blood tests can be carried out in General Practitioners' surgeries rather than needing to be sent off to laboratories to be tested.

The academics are using nanotechnology which is similar to that commonly used in computer and television displays to develop these kits. According to Professor Ashburn, standard laboratory blood-testing procedures have limitations if taken out of the laboratory. As the need for fast diagnosis of complex conditions such as cancer increases, the need for portable testing kits has become more pressing.

"Standard clinical laboratory tests have limitations outside the laboratory, which can reduce the diagnostic impact of new protein biomarkers for complex conditions like cancer and chronic inflammation", stated Professor Ashburn. "One-dimensional nanostructures such as nanowires are ideal for diagnosis as they can be integrated into microfluidic chips that provide a complete sensor system."

A major part of this project, which will be carried out over a three-year period, is an assessment of the sociological aspects involved in the take-up of nanotechnology in health care. "We need to understand how this new mechanism for blood testing sits in relation to established organisational forms, professional knowledge and inter-professional relations", stated Professor Susan Halford at the University of Southampton's School of Social Sciences.

"In particular, replacing hospital lab tests with GP-administered tests requires a whole series of subtle and highly politicized changes to the organisation of health care. Whilst the technology holds enormous potential, if it is to deliver the socially beneficial innovation so highly prioritized in public consultation, we need to develop in-depth understanding of how it can actually come into use."

Researchers from the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN), a joint venture between the University College London (UCL) and Imperial College London, and their research partners have been awarded the Nanotechnology for Healthcare grant from the EPSRC's Grand Challenge Competition. Their device will give people a way to monitor the HIV virus for themselves, reducing the need to visit a doctor as often. It will act as an early warning system to tell patients to seek medical help if the virus is resisting anti-retroviral treatments. It could also be of real benefit to doctors in developing countries who urgently need rapid and affordable ways to diagnose and monitor their patients.

The research will bring biomedical engineers, physicists, chemists, virologists and clinicians together to create the device, which will work in a similar way to how diabetics check their insulin levels - where a handheld machine analyses a finger prick of blood. The device will use tiny mechanical sensors, called nano-cantilever arrays, to measure HIV and other protein markers that can indicate a rise in the level of the virus and the body's response to it.

UCL lead investigator Dr. Rachel McKendry, Reader in Biomedical Nanoscience at the LCN, explained: "The nano-cantilever arrays are each coated with substances that stick to the HIV and other proteins, which are markers associated with disease progression. Accommodating these markers causes the highly sensitive sensors to bend like a diving board and this bend indicates the level of virus in the body. We have used nano-cantilever arrays to investigate drug resistance in super bugs, and are excited by the opportunity to extend this approach to detecting HIV markers."

The device will display messages on an integral screen, giving patients access to clear, immediate advice. For example, they could be told that their condition remains stable if levels of virus do not change, or they could be told to make an appointment to see their doctor if the virus begins to flare up.

Investigator, Dr. Anna-Maria Goretti, an National Health Service consultant and co-investigator based at the Royal Free Hospital, stated: "If patients neglect to take their treatments or need prompting to see their General Practitioner the device will provide a simple way of letting them know. It will really empower HIV patients to keep a close eye on their health and their treatments."

Robin Weiss, Professor of Viral Oncology at UCL, whose pioneering work in identifying the receptor for HIV has deepened the understanding of HIV/AIDS, added: "One of the principal advantages of the proposed device is its capacity to monitor viral and immunological markers on a single chip without the need for time consuming analysis that requires specialist laboratories."

Dr. Yeong-Ah Soh, lead investigator at Imperial and lecturer in Materials Science, who is responsible for engineering the nano-cantilever arrays, stated: "This project combines technology from semiconductor processing with modern biology to produce a unique piece of kit for tracking how HIV develops in individual patients, and helping them to keep a close eye on their own health."

The project will be carried out over the next three years, with the promise of additional funding. In the United Kingdom, there are an estimated 70.000 carriers of HIV. Worldwide, HIV/AIDS has grown to pandemic proportions and today there are 35 million people living with the virus, two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa. This development is expected to bring major improvement to UK patients and will anchor the United Kingdom at the forefront of HIV research.

Source: University College London, Universities of Leicester and Southampton

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