The nanorians are amongst us - and everyone knows why
02 October 2008, Source: wid.münster, Image source: wid.münster
"European Nano2life prize for Münster scientist: the complex world of the nanoparticle simply explained
Münster, 18 July, 2008 (wid). They are all around us, but no-one can see them: no, Torsten Vielhaber is not describing a sci-fi screenplay when he starts talking about nanorians. The Münster chemist has, rather, created a world in order to explain the essence of nanoparticles in a comprehensible way. The 27 year-old has now been awarded the European Nano2life Prize for his clear translation of complex scientific relationships (see also attached interview).
Nanorians are tiny beings, invisible to the naked eye. As soon as they are brought to life, they begin helping us to heal diseases or to extend the service life of machines. This has woken the urge to research in the University of Münster scientist. You cannot get hold of, sniff or taste nanobiotechnology, he says. The particles at the heart of everything are much smaller than a hair on your arm. Up to 60,000 times smaller, to be precise. To explain: the 27 year-old compares nanoparticles to apples. “If the earth were an apple, then an apple would be the size of an atom. 3,500 of these atoms in a crate would be a nanoparticle five nanometres (nm) in size: 12,000 times thinner than a hair.”
Anyone who gets into the imaginary world of nanoparticles will suddenly find that nanobiotechnology is suddenly no longer so complex and difficult to understand at all. Torsten Vielhaber compares the nanouniverse with our world. The nanoworld includes doctors, postmen, cleaners and lighthouse keepers. Some are magnetic, others illuminate, and yet others have pores running through them. Furthermore, nanoparticles consist of materials that man encounters all the time in daily life: gold, silver, glass, rust or expanded polystyrene. All nanoparticles, however, have one thing in common: they are lifeless. “As soon as we fit them with arms, legs and eyes and assign them specific tasks, nanoparticles become nanorians.”
In medical research, the nanorians will, in future, be close allies of man in the fight against cancer and other incurable diseases. A nanorian working inside the human body as a postman can, for example, delivery active ingredients to specific cells. In this way, he is supporting the doctors in their treatment. “Unfortunately, not all nanorians are nice and helpful”, says Vielhaber. “Some become violent, turn into thieves or even murderers. This is, naturally, the great risk of nanobiotechnology.”
The challenge to scientists now is to prevent the nanorians turning criminal. According to Vielhaber, the nanorians are very useful in medicine in particular. “They have great potential in tracking down the diseases, and in reducing the doses of medication and reducing side effects”, says the chemist. It would, however, be the scientists' job next to tell the nanorians the job they have to do.
The prize winner
Torsten Vielhaber is a doctoral student at the Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Westphalia (2006). Following a period of research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, he graduated in chemistry. As soon as he started his doctoral research in analytical chemistry working in Professor Uwe Karst's team (Uni Münster), Vielhaber began working with fluorescing, i.e. illuminating, nanoparticles based on rare earth metals; in particular with their synthesis and characterisation. Since he began his doctoral work two years ago, Vielhaber has primarily been concerned with turning nanoparticles into nanorians and equipping these with the necessary functions for their wide variety of tasks. Thanks to support from Nano2Life, Vielhaber visited the Danish Technical University, DTU Nanotech, in Copenhagen and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. The firsts tests on the toxicity of the nanoparticles he has synthesized were carried out here. In addition to two poster awards for his research, in 2008 Vielhaber was awarded the prize for the best young scientist in Nano2Life.
Nano2life is a nanobiotechnology network with approximately 200 leading European scientists from twelve nations. The aims are to bundle research activities and to make scientific knowledge understandable to the world of business and in the general population. This is why the network rewards the contributions from young scientists who illustrate complex research work in an easily understandable way.
Interview with Torsten Vielhaber
wid: You have described the universe of nanoparticles in a simple way. How did this come about?
Torsten Vielhaber: The idea was born out of necessity. My flatmates, parents and many of my friends have no background in science. I have always tried to explain my laboratory work in a simple way. Finally, I decided to put my explanations down on paper when Nano2Life announced its writing competition. This called on scientists to describe their field of research in a way that was generally understandable.
wid: Who was the audience for your description of the world of nanorians, and what did you aim to achieve with it?
Torsten Vielhaber: The competition was described as a “Public Writing Contest”. My story is aimed at people who are interested but do not have a scientific background. I hope to make nanotechnology easily accessible to the reader.
wid: So what is the day-to-day life of a nanorian like? Can you give us an example?
Torsten Vielhaber: As nanorians have different professions, they look different depending on their job, workplace and daily life. I could take an example from medicine. What I have called the lighthouse keeper works there. Its tasks may include drawing the doctor's attention to particular parts of the body with its lights. Once this work is done, the nanorian should leave the body. It may be said to be pensioned off. Other nanorians, for instance, ensure that dirt does not stick to the façades of buildings. They stay there for ever and work day and night, in wind and rain.
wid: How do you make sure that every nanorian does its job only?
Torsten Vielhaber: That is one of the decisive questions that we are also researching in our group. The nanorians are equipped with various tools in the laboratories. These may be compared with eyes, hands, etc. The body of the lighthouse keeper, for instance, can initially only illuminate. To prepare the nanoparticle for its use we provide it with eyes and hands. We often put keys in its hands so that it only has access to certain regions. Known as the lock-and-key principle, this is very widespread in biology. Thus equipped, the nanorian can start on its journey through the body.
wid: You say that there are good and bad nanorians. How do you distinguish between them? Are there also criminal nanorians?
Torsten Vielhaber: A series of tests is needed to distinguish between good and bad nanoparticles. In the laboratory we first determine the potential shown by the nanorians, and then the possible negative consequences. Using a risk/benefit analysis, we then decide whether or not the nanorians will be employed. In my own research I have not yet come across a truly criminal nanorian. Sometimes they just do not listen to me properly. However, I also know from conversations with colleagues things can happen differently. It is quite possible that nanorians do the opposite of what they were created to do. These criminal nanorians remain in the laboratories for ever and have to be reworked.
wid: Do nanorians also get time off?
Torsten Vielhaber: A nanorian could be said to be free until it is employed. After it has done its work it is gathered up and pensioned off. This generally means that it is broken down into its basic modules and thus loses its characteristics.
wid: How long do nanorians live?
Torsten Vielhaber: This depends on the application. In principle, nanoparticles can get very old. Our bones, for instance, consist of an enormous number of nanorians and are our companions for many years. Others, for their part, are only a few days or weeks old, as they are only needed for a short time. These include the lighthouse keepers mentioned.
wid: Where can nanorians help us?
Torsten Vielhaber: Examples from medicine are very good for outlining the characteristics and challenges of nanoparticles. This is why I kept myself to this discipline in my article. But there are very many other fields. Sun cream, engine oil, penetrating spray or LEDs: I am certain that a majority of my readers have already used products that have been enhanced with the use of nanorians. By the way, our little helpers are even found in socks: silver nanoparticles are used here to inhibit the generation of odours. There are various possibilities.
wid: Can you imagine the life of nanorians sometime being immortalised in a book or a film?
Torsten Vielhaber: Do you know the 1966 film “The Fantastic Journey”? A submarine and its crew is shrunk until it can pass through the blood vessels. A crew made up of nanorians would not even need a submarine. This shows how close we are to what was once a sci-fi scenario. But I do not believe they will make it to a book or as far as Hollywood. Perhaps the children's cartoon “Sendung mit der Maus” will have an episode about these little helpers. Anyway, the nanorians are constantly surprising me, so I would not rule anything out. "