Synthetic polymers coating a nanoparticle are synthetic antibodies

MIT chemical engineers have developed a novel way to generate nanoparticles that can recognize specific molecules, opening up a new approach to building durable sensors for many different compounds, among other applications.

To create these “synthetic antibodies,” the researchers used carbon nanotubes — hollow, nanometer-thick cylinders made of carbon that naturally fluoresce when exposed to laser light. In the past, researchers have exploited this phenomenon to create sensors by coating the nanotubes with molecules, such as natural antibodies, that bind to a particular target. When the target is encountered, the carbon nanotube’s fluorescence brightens or dims.

MIT chemical engineers created this sensor that can recognize riboflavin by coating a carbon nanotube with amphiphilic polymers.

The MIT team found that they could create novel sensors by coating the nanotubes with specifically designed amphiphilic polymers — polymers that are drawn to both oil and water, like soap. This approach offers a huge array of recognition sites specific to different targets, and could be used to create sensors to monitor diseases such as cancer, inflammation, or diabetes in living systems.

“This new technique gives us an unprecedented ability to recognize any target molecule by screening nanotube-polymer complexes to create synthetic analogs to antibody function,” says Michael Strano.

The researchers used an automated, robot-assisted trial and error procedure to test about 30 polymer-coated nanotubes against three dozen possible targets, yielding three hits. They are now working on a way to predict such polymer-nanotube interactions based on the structure of the corona layers, using data generated from a new type of microscope that Landry built to image the interactions between the carbon nanotube coronas and their targets.

“What’s happening to the polymer and the corona phase has been a bit of a mystery, so this is a step forward in getting more data to address the problem of how to design a target for a specific molecule,” Landry says.

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