Developments in nanomedicine hold potential advances and applications that could improve our ability to diagnose diseases and even treat them. What are the benefits and their potential?
We discuss this with Dr. Maurizio Prato, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Trieste, Academic of the Lincei, Research Professor at CIC biomaGUNE, and author of an interesting article recently published by the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications.
How did you come to study carbon nanodots?
For most of my scientific career I’ve studied carbon-based materials. Over the course of my studies I developed an interest in carbon nanoparticles, also called carbon nanodots, which in a way, are not yet completely clear but are also luminescent.
Carbon nanodots are created from small molecules such as amino acids and sugars but in fact any organic substance is fine, after treatment at about 200 degrees centigrade for a few minutes. The advantage of this procedure is that it’s not necessary to start from pure substances (i.e. you can use food waste substances such as banana peels or palm leaves). So it would be feasible for large-scale production and very environmentally-friendly.
In addition, carbon nanodots are very stable at room temperature and the luminescence is also maintained intact for a long time.
How is the luminescence of carbon nanodots created?
It’s not yet clear, but there are several hypotheses. For example, it is thought that during the combustion reaction organic compounds undergo condensation reactions forming aromatic nuclei that emit. Another hypothesis is that they are surface phenomena of the molecule, controlled by some functional groups. It will be interesting to investigate this in the near future.
Was this research conducted entirely in your laboratories?
Being quite complex, it required a multidisciplinary approach. We collaborated with Heinz Amenitsch of Elettra Sincrotone Trieste who applied a SAXS (Small Angle X-ray Spectroscopy) technique that allowed us to study the size of even very small particles and helped us, along with other techniques, to understand how carbon nanodots form over time. Part of the work was carried out in Spain, at the CIC biomaGUNE, an international research center where I carry out an important part of my research activities.
What are the applications in the biomedical field?
The fact that carbon nanodots are luminescent opens up multiple uses for them. For example, the possibility of following the particles once injected into the human body and then being able to use them in the field of diagnostic imaging. Biomedical imaging is in fact the most promising field of application: through structural modification of carbon nanodots, they can be used to develop contrast agents for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
I would like to clarify that some studies have already been done on animals regarding safety, demonstrating that these particles are harmless and therefore can be injected; however, it will certainly be necessary to perform further investigations to be able to use them on human patients.
Another very interesting application is the targeted transport of drugs. The carbon nanodots could be modified to be able to convey medicines toward a particular organ and could transport a drug towards a tissue or tumor cell, and the path could be monitored, thanks to the luminescence emitted by the nanoparticles.
Another advantage of carbon nanodots is their solubility in water. This makes it possible to transport drugs that are not soluble (in water) and thus make them more bio-available.
We’re also studying an application of carbon nanodots for the delivery of drugs across the blood-brain barrier, to be able to transport drugs directly into the brain and be able to treat diseases of the central nervous system (Science4life recently published an article on this subject).
Could there be other applications?
Carbon nanodots could also be used to convert carbon dioxide into more useful compounds such as methane or methanol. This would be a very big step in moving toward more sustainable chemistry; using luminescent nanoparticles for light-catalyzed transformations.
Other applications in the biomedical and energy fields will undoubtedly be explored in the near future, and I hope that young researchers will become passionate about this field (that has enormous potential) but it also presents many challenges that can be overcome with both preparation and a multidisciplinary approach.
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