Does the sea hold more secrets to help medical science?
Diatoms are being prepared for delivery of drugs, writes Katherine Donnelly
Diatoms are microalgae found in both freshwater and sea-water environments and, to date, over 100,000 species have been identified.
They contain patterns and structures on the tiniest scale imaginable, nanoscale: to give an idea of how minute that is, a nanometre is one hundred thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Nanoscience is a growing field and involves the study of materials at these tiny dimensions and how they can be manipulated to form structures for a variety of uses, such as in medicine and computing.
But synthesising nanomaterials of different chemical composition and size is extremely difficult, so scientists are looking at living organisms to inspire and develop their work.
Diatoms are one such organism and scientists believe their chemical composition and unique architecture make them an effective vehicle for the targeted delivery of drugs, or genes.
Leitrim native Yvonne Lang, a PhD student at NUI Galway, collected diatoms from sea water in Galway Bay and cultured them in the laboratory. Her ground-breaking research involved altering the chemistry of the living diatom and its architectural features and tailoring it for its intended application.
The next stage of her work is focussing on preparing the structure of the diatom for use in the delivery of drugs.
The benefit would be the efficient delivery of the correct amount of drug or gene to the desired site, for instance a tumour or diseased tissue, so minimising undesired side effects of the drugs on other tissues.
The findings of her research to date were published in the prestigious 'Nature Communications' earlier this month, where she detailed how various microscopy techniques enabled her to monitor chemical and architectural modifications to the diatom.
Diatoms are also being explored as biosensors because of their large surface area and optical properties. The silica structures of diatoms are readily integrated with traditional processing methods in the semiconductor industry.
* Yvonne Lang's work at NUI Galway's Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials (NFB) is funded by Science Foundation Ireland and supervised by Professor Abhay Pandit and Dr David Finn.
* She followed a Diploma in Analytical Chemistry at IT Sligo with a Bsc in Chemistry and Msc in Neuropharmacology at NUI Galway.