Nanofibre Breakthrough Holds Promise for Medicine and Microprocessors

Photo: Protein-Nanofibres process

In addition, applied differently, this same development could point the way to even tinier and more powerful microprocessors for future generations of computers and consumer electronics devices.

Yet all of this almost never emerged, says Professor Jin Montclare, who explains that it was sheer "serendipity" – a chance observation made by Gunasekar two years ago – that inspired the team's research and led to its significant findings.

During an experiment that involved studying certain cylinder-shaped proteins derived from cartilage oligomeric matrix protein (COMP, found predominantly in human cartilage), Gunasekar noticed that in high concentrations, these alpha helical coiled-coil proteins spontaneously came together and self-assembled into nanofibres. It was a surprising outcome, Montclare says, because COMP was not known to form fibres at all. "We were really excited,” she recalls. “So we decided to do a series of experiments to see if we could control the fibre formation, and also control its binding to small molecules, which would be housed within the protein's cylinder."

Of special interest were molecules of curcumin, an ingredient in dietary supplements used to combat Alzheimer's disease, cancers and heart disorders.

By adding a set of metal-recognising amino acids to the coiled-coil protein, the NYU-Poly team succeeded, finding that the nanofibres alter their shapes upon addition of metals such as zinc and nickel to the protein. Moreover, the addition of zinc fortified the nanofibres, enabling them to hold more curcumin, while the addition of nickel transformed the fibres into clumped mats, triggering the release of the drug molecule.

Next, Montclare says, the researchers plan to experiment with creating scaffolds of nanofibres that can be used to induce the regeneration of bone and cartilage (via embedded vitamin D) or human stem cells (via embedded vitamin A).

Later, it may even be possible to apply this organic, protein-based method for creating nanofibres to the world of computers and consumer electronics, Montclare says – producing nanoscale gold threads for use as circuits in computer chips by first creating the nanofibres and then guiding that metal to them.

Ultimately, Montclare says, the researchers would like the fruits of their discovery – such therapeutic nanofibres and metallic nanowires – to be adopted by pharmaceutical companies and microprocessor makers alike.; Source: Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly)