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Safer Nano Cancer Detector

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Bright red-orange photoluminescence observed from porous silicon nanoparticles with human HeLa cells, magnified 1000x and viewed in the reflection from a silicon wafer. Prepared from high-purity silicon wafers, these nanoparticles provide a non-toxic and biodegradable alternative to conventional quantum dots for in-vitro and in-vivo fluorescence imaging. The cell nuclei are stained blue.Credit: Luo Gu, Ji-Ho Park, UCSD

The first biodegradable fluorescent nanoparticle to safely image tumors and organs in live mice could be used for cancer detection and treatment in humans. Chemistry professor Michael Sailor and a team including National Science Foundation supported researchers at the University of California, San Diego, report developing the first nanoscale "quantum dot" particle that glows brightly enough to allow physicians to examine internal organs and lasts long enough to release cancer drugs before breaking down into harmless by-products. The research is another step towards mainstreaming the use of nanotechnology in medicine. Many researchers say using nanomaterials for medical reasons is the health field's next major frontier. The payoff, they say, could be lower drug toxicity, lower treatment costs, more efficient drug use, and better patient diagnosis. "There are a lot of nanomaterials that have an ability to do fluorescence imaging," says Sailor, referring to a useful property that potentially could help doctors further see organs, diagnose patients and perform surgeries. "But they're generally toxic and not appropriate for putting into people." The problem results from toxic organic or inorganic chemicals used to make the materials glow. For example, fluorescent semiconductor nanoparticles known as quantum dots can release potentially harmful heavy metals when they break down. A paramount issue in determining the efficacy of nanomaterials is the body's ability to harmlessly get rid of residual leftovers after the nanomaterial helps diagnose or treat a disease. So Sailor's team designed a new, non-toxic quantum dot nanoparticle made from silicon wafers, the same high-purity wafers that go into the manufacture of computer chips. Reseachers took the thin wafers and ran electric current through them drilling billions of pores. They then used ultrasound waves to break the wafer into bits as small as 100 nanometers. The resulting spongy silicon particles contained nano-scale features capable of displaying quantum confinement effects, or the so-called "quantum dots." The ones in the UCSD experiment glowed a reddish color when exposed to red, blue, or ultraviolet light.
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