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Tiny Sphere, Big Future: UMass Lowell Profs Study Medical Uses for Nanospheres

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON

Monday, August 04, 2003 - LOWELL The applications can range from a bioterrorism mask to insulin in a pill, from a smart Band-Aid that stimulates healing to patches that can deliver medicine across the skin.

With nanospheres tiny balls so small they can't be seen in a typical microscope the possibilities are endless.

Two scientists at University of Massachusetts Lowell are researching the technology, searching for new and better ways to create the materials and looking at their efficacy when it comes to the actual delivery of drugs and nutrients.

"The potential is huge," said Robert Nicolosi, a health and clinical sciences professor.

The spheres, which can measure as small as 20 nanometers in diameter, are so tiny they can pass through the skin. The core can be filled with some type of drug or nutrient, and then applied to the skin.

Rather than traveling throughout the body and dissipating in the blood stream, the drug can be immediately applied to the right spot. As a result, it can work more quickly, less of the drug would be necessary, and it would cause fewer side-effects.

They can also be tailored to respond to the environment around them, allowing some drugs that could only be taken through injection, like insulin, to be taken orally. Instead of disintegrating in the acidic stomach environment, the nanospheres can be constructed with a material that only swells once it reaches the intestine, where the insulin can be absorbed.

Researchers are even looking at the possibility of spinning fibers from a solution containing nanospheres. Antidotes to some kind of bioterrorist attack could be embedded within the mask itself.

"There's all kinds of potential applications," Nicolosi said.

The scale of the nanospheres is miniscule millions of them can fit inside a grain of sand.

The tiny size represents a leap forward from the study of materials now, which is usually based on the microsphere.

"They're using basketballs right now. We're talking about using baseballs," said Stephen McCarthy, a UMass Lowell plastics engineering professor.

McCarthy is experimenting with different biodegradable materials and methods for the construction of the nanospheres. Nicolosi is researching the effectiveness of nanosphere drug delivery.

They say they're only beginning to discover the best way to develop the tiny materials.

"What's the best biodegradable material to make a nanosphere out of? What's the most efficient way to make it?" McCarthy said. "We're at square one for most of these things."

And early indications are that the use of nanospheres to deliver drugs can be just as or even more effective than the current methods.

"It gives us the ability to deliver whatever much, much more quickly to the bloodstream," Nicolosi said. "The beauty of a nanosphere is that because it's so tiny, your ability to move things through the skin will be many times greater than what's available now."