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From cancer to crops: engineering small solutions for the world's big problems

From drug delivery and energy sources to agriculture and water treatment, some of the world’s largest, and the most complex problems can be solved today with the smallest, simplest structures using principles of aerosol science and technology.

Because so many of these problems, while grand in scale, originate at the cellular or molecular level, there is a need to begin by thinking small when engineering a solution. Nanoparticles, which are microscopic in size, have become increasingly important in the scientific community because they have the potential to address a wide variety of issues across fields.

Consider the nanoparticle a bonding agent that can create a bridge across all kinds of molecular structures and materials. As this bridge between larger materials, such as a tumor, there is immense potential to use them as powerful agents against destructive diseases. One particular application for the treatment of brain diseases and disorders shows promise.

The blood-brain barrier, which functions to protect the body’s most vital organ, also prevents treatment methods from effectively addressing brain disorders and diseases. Brain disease, for example, remains a leading cause of chronic health challenges and fatalities. Roughly every minute, between one and two Americans are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the No. 6 leading cause of death in the United States – and the only one among the Top 10 without a cure or treatment. Depression, the most common mental disorder and the third-leading cause of disease burden worldwide, is the primary driver of suicide. Moreover, perhaps the brain could be used as a bridge for better treating depression, the primary driver of suicide, which took the lives of 800,000 people alone in 2015, according to the World Health Organization.

While scientists, medical practitioners, drug companies and families alike are contributing time and money to massive research efforts for advancing the treatment of specific brain diseases and disorders, one major obstacle remains. Delivering life-saving drugs directly to the brain in a safe and effective way has been a nearly insurmountable challenge for medical providers. The blood-brain barrier inhibits the delivery of drugs. Existing treatment methods, such as an injection or a pill, aren’t as precise or immediate as doctors and patients need them to be, and direct delivery to the brain requires invasive and risky techniques.

The need for, and opportunity to improve, drug delivery is immediate and far-reaching. Beyond just saving lives, brain disorders impact the quality of life. The diminished productivity created by brain disorders amounts to more than 10 billion lost days of work globally per year – about $1 trillion USD in lost economic output – and this doesn’t include the cost of treatment.


Pratim Biswas

So how do we solve this problem? As we found in recent research, one surprising new avenue may well come through the nose, delivering drugs with a simple sniff. In the form of nanoparticles, non-invasive nasal spray, this method could allow for a therapeutic dose of medicine to reach the brain within 30 minutes to one hour. By delivering drugs via nanoparticles that can cross the blood-brain barrier, doctors could ensure less risk and better response time for patient treatment and recovery. We first tested this method in a locust, because it has a simple, but similar anatomical blood-brain barrier and its olfactory pathway is a popular model for neural coding and behavior. The early research has shown promising results with effective delivery and minimal to no tissue damage.

Nanoparticles are transforming biomedical research, but their impact is not limited to this field. Beyond their role in drug delivery, nanoparticles have the potential to disrupt agriculture practices for more efficient and safer production of food sources. Food production and its nutritional quality is a challenge for the global population, projected to cross 9 billion by 2050, placing a high demand on food production with ever limiting natural resources.


Ramesh Raliya

Nanoparticles are transforming biomedical research, but their impact is not limited to this field. Beyond their role in drug delivery, nanoparticles have the potential to disrupt agriculture practices for more efficient and safer production of food sources. Food production and its nutritional quality is a challenge for the global population, projected to cross 9 billion by 2050, placing a high demand on food production with ever limiting natural resources.

Farmers spread fertilizer on their fields, to replenish nutrients. It’s is certainly not the ideal and sustainable way to farm, but it’s thought to be the most efficient for large-scale farms. Therefore, farmers end up buying more and paying more every year for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium nutrients, popularly known as NPK fertilizer. Due to poor use efficiency of existing fertilizers, farmers are incapable of maximizing crop production, despite increased fertilizer consumption. The main challenges with current fertilizers are low uptake efficiency and loss by leaching into the environment, requiring farmers to apply more fertilizer per acre (27-40 kg), resulting in ~40% more cost per acre. Also, the excess fertilizer being applied to the soil affects the population of beneficial soil microbes, thus lowering the nutrient uptake. Furthermore, fertilizer runoff causes environmental pollution. Unused fertilizer (>50%) causes eutrophication, requiring additional resources of about $10 billion to clean the water in natural systems.

To avoid the food crisis and inefficient use of fertilizers, we have created zinc oxide nanoparticles from a fungus around a plant’s root that helps the plant mobilize and take up the nutrients from the soil. When applied to the leaves of a mung bean plant, a legume grown mainly in China, Southeast Asia, and India, where 60 percent of the population is vegetarian and relies on plant-based protein sources, the nanoparticles increased the uptake of the phosphorus by nearly 11 percent. This application reduces the amount of phosphorus required to fertilize the soil and activates other enzymes to support plant growth. Further, we developed smart fertilizers consisting of NPK nanocomposites and optimized the delivery approach for controlled release and enhanced utilization by the plants. The smart fertilizer showed great potential to increase yield, biomass, and nutritional value for cereals, legumes, vegetables and other horticulture crops.

Whether it’s targeting a brain tumor or preparing for the expected increase in global population, and therefore an increased need for food production, aerosol scientists and engineers are working toward the next big breakthrough with the smallest solutions.