Nanosponges to the Rescue

Tiny Warriors Dodge the Immune System to Deliver Lifesaving Treatments

In the emerging world of nanotechnology, tiny is beautiful and potentially saves lives. A “nanosponge” invented by engineers at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering can soak up and safely remove a broad class of dangerous toxins from the bloodstream—including bacteria such as MRSA and E. coli, and venom from poisonous snakes and bees. To evade the immune system and remain in circulation in the bloodstream, the nanosponges, each about eighty-five nanometers in diameter, are wrapped in red blood cell membranes. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.)

This novel cloaking technology, which so far has been studied in mice, can neutralize “pore-forming toxins” that destroy cells by poking holes in cell membranes. Unlike other antitoxin platforms that must be custom synthesized for individual toxin types, the nanosponge can neutralize toxins caused by a wide range of pathogens.

This major breakthrough in drug delivery research was developed in the laboratory of nanoengineering professor Liangfang Zhang, who holds joint faculty appointments at the Jacobs School and the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. The Zhang research group aims to translate its pioneering work into approved medical therapies, with clinical trials as a critical next step.

In 2013, MIT Technology Review named Zhang to its annual prestigious “35 Innovators under 35” list. The youthful winners were cited for their approaches to solving big problems, exploring new frontiers, and setting the stage for future innovations.

Student Researcher in Zhang Group Wins Research Prize

At Research Expo 2013, the grand prize went to Ronnie Hongbo Fang, a nanoengineering graduate student and member of the Zhang research team, for his presentation of the group’s research on nanosponges and his ability to describe the fundamental discoveries in layman’s terms. The annual Expo event requires students from the six academic departments of the Jacobs School to explain the content of their research to a team of judges from industry and academia.

First Nano Grads

UC San Diego launched the nation’s first nanoengineering department in 2007 and an undergraduate degree program in 2010. In summer 2013, seventeen seniors earned the university’s first nanoengineering bachelor’s degree.

More than twenty local and national companies endorsed the department’s formation within the Jacobs School, based on their need for multidisciplinary trained engineers with a broad background in engineering and science, and a focus on the unique properties of materials whose physical scale is in the nanometer range.

Corrective Lenses: New Hope for Macular Degeneration Patients

A new telescopic contact lens that can switch between normal and magnified vision by using slightly modified, off-the-shelf, 3-D television glasses could ultimately improve vision for individuals suffering from eye disease, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD patients typically cannot read or recognize faces.

An engineering team, led by UC San Diego electrical engineering professor Joseph Ford, built a prototype of the lens and tested it on a mechanical eye. Once fine-tuned, the lens should be less invasive and do a better job of collecting light than the miniature telescopes that can currently be implanted in a patient’s eyes.

In summer 2013, UC San Diego researchers partnered with Innovega and Paragon Vision Sciences to conduct human clinical trials on a preliminary version of the wearable lens. A second trial is planned for 2014.