Make Your Own Carbon Nanoparticles

Carbon nanoparticles have been shown to be extremely useful in ferrying pharmaceuticals within the body. They are small enough to escape notice of the body’s immune system and reflect light in such a way that they can be easily distinguished from natural tissues. Unfortunately, their production has always involved complicated and expensive equipment and slow purification processes. Now bioengineering researchers at the University of Illinois have found a way to produce them in just a few hours with a microwave and simple household products like molasses and honey. Their results are published this month in the journal Small.

Carbon nanoparticles: though it may look like soot, carbon nanoparticles are a valuable diagnostic and treatment tool for many medical applications. Image from indiamart.com.Carbon nanoparticles: though it may look like soot, carbon nanoparticles are a valuable diagnostic and treatment tool for many medical applications. Image from indiamart.com.

Carbon nanoparticles have been attracting more and more attention as biomedical agents in the human body due to several unique properties. The first quality of note is the natural luminescence of the nanospheres. Unlike many other agents used in medical imaging, carbon nanoparticle naturally scatter light in a fashion distinct from biological tissues which means that no additional fluorescent tags or dyes are needed to observe their behavior in the body. This both improves safety and lowers the cost of many imaging experiments. Secondly, it is easy for the base carbon particles to be modified by attaching various polymers to the surface. The polymers can add a number of different functionalities by, for example, changing their optical properties, directing them through a particular biological pathway, coupling them to pharmaceuticals for delivery within a particular region of the body, or modulating the rate of particle degradation. Finally, carbon nanoparticles can reliably be made very small, on the order of 8 nanometers across – that’s eight billionths of a meter! The human immune system fails to recognize items smaller than 10 nanometers so the nanoparticles are able to pass undetected through the body, performing their functions without eliciting an immune response.

So how do you go about producing these medical marvels at home? Easy. Take honey and molasses, mix them together, and nuke them in the microwave for several minutes. The resultant product looks like char (and let’s be honest here, it is), but char is nothing more than carbonaceous material and in this case that carbon takes the form of remarkably tiny luminescent nanoparticles. This represents one of the cheapest, easiest and readily scalable manufacturing techniques to date.

Honey: if you have this common household product on your shelf, you're already well on your way to producing homemade carbon nanoparticles.Honey: if you have this common household product on your shelf, you're already well on your way to producing homemade carbon nanoparticles.

The team decided to test their nanoparticles by treating a pig skin with melanoma. They coupled the carbon spheres with a carefully designed polymer as well as a drug typically used in treating this cancer. The first property they adjusted was the temperature at which the drug was released. By carefully modifying the polymer, they could design the system such that the pharmaceutical remains bound to the nanoparticle at room temperature, but dissociates at body temperature. They then further adjusted the polymeric coating such that the particles were preferentially directed to melanoma rather than healthy cells. Because the particles also allow imaging, the scientists were able to monitor the progress of the cancer and they observed melanoma cell swelling, a sign of impending cell death. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Rohit Bhargava, discussed the wide range of uses for these materials: “This is a versatile platform to carry a multitude of drugs – for melanoma, for other kinds of cancers and for other diseases. You can coat it with different polymers to give it a different optical response. You can load it with two drugs, or three, or four, so you can do multidrug therapy with the same particles.”

Not bad for a material that can be produced by anyone with a microwave and some liquid sugars!

Via University of Illinois and Small.