By Oran Maguire
I am a recent graduate of University College London with a background in neuroscience, pharmacology, synthetic biology, and transfection techniques. I have been involved in highly speculative bench-work, and I have also written reports on the reality of medical care for intractable problems with limited resources. It's all “life science”, but the differences in language, tone and presentation can be marked. I am always very keen to have a hand (however small) in bridging these gaps, not just between science and the public, or science and policy makers, but between one discipline of science and another.
I was delighted to be asked to visit the Spraybase labs. My brief has been to produce new imagery and written material to help convey the usefulness of the technology; but it is also an opportunity to observe an interdisciplinary team work to produce an array of cutting edge, yet user-friendly lab equipment. I would receive an expert introduction to a branch of physics which may become as important to biomedical research as wobbling hydrogen atoms have become to brain scans.
Most of all, it was a chance to witness the moment at which an emergent or speculative technology starts to become a standard technology in the lab. Spraybase is one of a number of organisations helping bring the benefits of nanotechnology to bioscience research. When ordinary materials are formed into particles and fibres best measured in the billionths of a metre, the same scale as the scaffolds and components of cells the same materials tend to behave very differently. There is huge potential in this area.
Nanotechnology may help deliver drugs and other bioactive agents exactly where they are needed; over almost any conceivable timeframe; intact. In doing so, it could help researchers get around some of the oldest problems of pharmacology: drug delivery. Nanotechnology also offers to overcome longstanding issues in the reprogramming of cells (transfection) and it may even enable the organisation of cells into tissues. Current and upcoming Avectas products are designed to enable research into these and other areas.
Although the basic technology has been applied for some time for standard substances (inkjet printing uses a similar principle), bioactive molecules can be unpredictable and disruptive on the nano-scale, so in practise, the process needs frequent tweaking, especially when one lab attempts to reproduce another's results. This tweaking can be time-consuming, even dangerous, for bioscience researchers with little background in physics and engineering. Avectas is addressing this need for flexible, dependable kits: each produced according to the researcher's needs. During my time there, I was impressed not only by the power of the basic processes, but by the care each member took to design useful, dependable tools.