From plastics to nanotechnology

Imagine a future 25 years from now: Many forms of cancer have a cure, every house glistens with solar panels providing carbon-free energy. Water is filtered by nanoparticles. It is a golden age of science and medicine.

Imagine a future 25 years from now: Many forms of cancer have a cure, every house glistens with solar panels providing carbon-free energy. Water is filtered by nanoparticles.

It is a golden age of science and medicine.

That is the future that nanotechnology—the study of how to control matter on a molecular level—is working toward. This technology has quickly risen to the forefront of scientific research, with advances being made all the time, including at Portland State.

Portland State chemistry professor Dr. Mingdi Yan noted the shift of focus over the past few decades from revolutionary plastics to dynamically flexible nanoparticles. 

Leading researchers, including Yan, believe that nanotechnology could hold the key to energy efficiency, cancer treatment, and much more. The United States has even invested federal funds in research initiatives to explore the new technology.

Yan’s field of nanotechnology is “surface chemistry.” She explains that all matter has a surface that can be seen but it also has other entities that interact with the surface. 

According to the Web site for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the federally funded research program, “Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.”

Yan explained that this seemingly complicated science is frequently applied to medical science.

Implants are the first thing that Yan mentioned. With medical implants the body attaches to a foreign material, and if the body rejects it, the implant doesn’t work, she said.

However, if chemists can put a surface coat on the implant that tells the biological system “I’m OK”, that would be a technological advance, Yan said.

In drug delivery, nanocoating can become a carrier attached to medicines that target specific tumors and essentially chaperones the drug to its target, she explained.

However, targeted treatment is not possible as of yet.

“You need a carrier that is not toxic and is compatible with the biological environment,” she explained.

Another research project is the development of a screening technique to study sugar and protein interaction as some diseases are triggered from the cell’s interaction through sugar.

“We do not know how cells interact with bacteria and toxins,” she said. “The goal is to devise a way to study the sugar and protein interaction.”

Yan described another advance nanotechnology could provide: A coating of nanoparticles could be applied to contact lenses, which would make them more comfortable, with fewer infections and an ability to wear them for longer durations.

“I tell my students it’s important to understand that research takes a lot of patience and effort for new products to benefit society,” she said.

Only a fraction of patents become a product, Yan said, adding that despite the odds there is still a lot of excitement in the lab for those involved.

Yan has 15 patents already, one of which was sold to a Swiss company and is earning Portland State additional money.

The China native recently received the Outstanding Researcher Award from Sigma Xi, the international scientific research society. She has over 50 refereed publications and $6.8 million dollars in external research funding.

The daughter of two scientists, Yan is drawn to the subject because of its reliance on “rational thinking”.

After immigrating to the United States, she earned her doctorate degree at the University of Oregon and worked for a startup company founded by on of her former professors before to coming to Portland State.

She encourages her graduate and undergraduate students to acquire a broad understanding of ideas and to test theories and get results from what they predict, mirroring the methodology of professionals in the field.

Although many expect nanotechnology to solve all the world’s problems, there are many environmental and human health concerns over the new technology, she explained.

Many are calling attention to the lack of research of the long-term effects of nanoparticles in the human body and the environment.

Yan, however, is optimistic that some form of regulation or oversight will identify any dangers and find solutions.

“All science has a downside,” she said. “As we learn more and build more knowledge we will improve our work, I am optimistic.”