Nanotech dazzles at College Park

Friday, May 19, 2006

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
CytImmune CEO Lawrence Tamarkin hopes to market nanodrugs that treat cancer. See story, page 7.

From cancer treatments to odor-free socks, the coming nanotech revolution will transform life the way automobiles and computers did in the last century, nanoscientists would have us believe.

And with worldwide investments in nanotechnology growing 10 percent last year, the time seemed right, said University of Maryland researchers, to showcase the initial two years of their Maryland Nano Center in College Park.

Last week’s NanoDay — the center’s first — was a platform for industry and academic scientists and about 100 students to convince 300 guests that atomic level manufacturing — nanotechnology — will be the industrial revolution of the 21st century.

Global investment in nanotechnology reached $9.6 billion in 2005, up 10 percent from 2004, according to a report by investment analyst firm Lux Research Inc. of New York. The National Science Foundation predicts that nanotechnology revenues worldwide will exceed the $1 trillion mark by 2020.

Gary Rubloff, director of the Nano Center, said that a convergence of technologies in the past 20 years, including micro-robotics, semi-conductors and powerful microscopes, has allowed scientists to manipulate matter into new kinds of tiny particles.

The resulting nanoparticles are measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick. Some nanoparticle products are as thin as a single molecule or a protein fragment.

Several nanomedicine companies have emerged in Maryland recently, including three in Rockville: Rexahn Pharmaceuticals Inc., Intradigm Corp. and CytImmune Sciences Inc., which are approaching clinical trials of nanodrug delivery systems to fight cancer.

‘‘I would say in the next five to 10 years we will get some actual medical applications” to market, said Hamid Ghandehari, director of the Center for Nanomedicine and Cellular Delivery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Ronald L. Brown, director of research at Quality Biological Inc. of Gaithersburg, said that that several weeks ago ‘‘some of the deans here” visited his company, one of the state’s oldest biotechs, founded in 1983, ‘‘and talked with us to find the best ways to get involved in the biotech industry.”

At NanoDay, Brown said his company is particularly impressed with nanotechnology to treat cancer. ‘‘As nanotechnology develops, we want to see where we can play a role. We wanted to see what the University of Maryland has to offer,” he said.

‘‘Things like this day are important to companies,” said Richard Grant, business manager for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development’s Capital region. ‘‘The center is offering companies space in the nanolabs. I plan to let the companies I meet know these resources are available. We are trying to promote it as much as we can to encourage such innovation in Maryland.”

The Maryland NanoCenter, with 80 researchers, is a partnership of the university’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, the College of Chemical and Life Sciences and the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

Not to be ‘‘out-nanoed,” Johns Hopkins University on Monday unveiled its new Institute for Nanobiotechnology in Baltimore. The coalition of more than 100 researchers will concentrate on solving medical and health problems, said institute director Peter C. Searson. In an effort to ease nanotechnology transfer to industry, the institute has established affiliate programs with Northup Grumman of Los Angeles and Medtronic Inc. of Minneapolis.

Nano products ready

‘‘Nano is here,” declared guest speaker John Randall, chief technical officer at Zyvex Corp. of Richardson, Texas, at NanoDay.

Randall said the nano revolution will be comparable to production of automobiles beginning in 1899 and the personal computer beginning in 1973. Each of those ‘‘revolutions” took 23 years to reach ‘‘full penetration of American households,” he said.

By that schedule, nanotechnology may be a bit behind, as the first nanotech work was done 16 years ago at IBM, Randall said.

But nanotech versions of some common items are already appearing. Forbes magazine‘s list of new commercial nanotech products for 2005 included a fat-busting canola cooking oil, chocolate chewing gum from elasticized cocoa, nanofacial cream for antioxidant results, a baseball bat made with powerful nanofibers, casual apparel with tiny whiskers to repel liquids and stink-proof polyester socks.

Lux reports that in 2005 emerging nanotechnology was built into $32 billion worth of manufactured goods, more than double the previous year. The firm projects that by 2014, nanotech will be incorporated into $2.6 trillion in global manufactured goods.

Analyst Vahe Mamikunian at Lux said from 2004 to 2005 corporate nanoresearch and development spending was up 18 percent, spending by governments was up 3 percent, and the $497 million in venture capital for nanotechnology in 2005 was up 17 percent from 2004.

Michael S. Fuhrer, a physics professor at College Park, said that through nanotechnology, silicon will be replaced in many electronics by cheaper carbon in as soon as five years.

‘‘Thin film nanotubes made of carbon are the most exciting because they are extraordinary transductors” of electrons, Fuhrer said. High-performance electronics can be made for ‘‘pennies” on plastics and fabrics and ‘‘made into anything such an electronic device that tells you if a milk carton is expired,” he said.