Steven has over 20 years of nanotechnology experience beginning with his graduate work at Rice University where he discovered a method of fabricating gold nanoshells. This discovery led to the formation of Nanospectra Biosciences where the gold nanoshells are in clinical trials as a cancer therapy. In 2004 he founded nanoComposix to accelerate the commercialization of products based on precisely engineered and highly characterized nanoparticles. Steven has 10 issued patents and over 40 papers in the area of nanotechnology.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is the study and the application of really small things. What’s exciting about nanotechnology is that it’s not just about making things smaller, it’s that at the nanoscale materials are different, allowing for the production of products with amazing new properties.
How did nanotechnology become your passion?
When I graduated from university in Canada, Rice University had one of the first nanotechnology degree programs, so it was an opportunity to explore something that was new and different. I spent five years in an exciting and innovative lab that used lasers and surface science tools to explore the fundamental properties of nanomaterials and their applications. The materials we were studying had novel and unusual properties and I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to create useful products. After graduating from Rice, I went to a small company here in San Diego, learned how to leverage government grants and different small business programs to fund commercialization projects and then started nanoComposix 15 years ago.
What is nanoComposix’ primary mission?
The primary mission of nanoComposix is to help people leverage the unique and important properties of nanomaterials into commercial products. We’ve had many successes and failures so that we can help our customers determine if they have a good idea. If so, we can help guide them through the process of completing the research and development, make the materials in a consistent and reliable way, and importantly, scale up production to make the particles at a cost point that’s going to be commercially viable. Once these tasks are complete, the materials can be integrated into a final product that will have a high probability of commercial success.
Who are your main customers?
Our customers are from both the R&D community (universities, government labs, corporate research) and companies that want to bring a nano-enabled material to market. By using our particles as building blocks they don’t have to make all of the different component nanoparticles themselves; we can provide precisely engineered particles in terms of size, shape and surface and, most importantly, we extensively characterize them. Once they have that combination of particles and information, they can create something new with their ideas.
What kind of innovation are your products bringing to the market?
A lot of our products take advantage of the unusual properties of gold and silver at the nanoscale. Very small particles of gold and silver act as nanoscale antennas – they strongly interact with light. The color of these particles is a function of their size and shape. Small gold spheres will be ruby red in color like a glass of wine. Small silver spheres will be bright yellow.
One example where these particles are used is in lateral flow assays. The most common example of this is a drug store based pregnancy test. In this test, you will typically see one or two red lines. If you see two lines you’re pregnant. If you just see one line then you’re not. The red color comes from 40 nm diameter gold nanoparticles with an antibody attached to the particle surface. It’s probably the most common nanotechnology application that nobody knew was nano. We’re developing a wide range of lateral flow tests for applications that range from early cancer detection to diagnosis of neglected tropical diseases. For example, we’re making a test for military use to see if a soldier has been exposed to a dangerous chemical in the field. This test looks at heart, liver and kidney biomarkers to see if the solider needs medical attention. Other nanoparticle applications that we’re currently helping with include topical therapeutics for the treatment of acne, photothermal treatments of cancer, and cures for common allergies.
Where do we use nanotechnology in our everyday lives, and are not even aware of it?
Many televisions incorporate nanoparticles into their screens to produce more vibrant colors. The increased color depth of reds, blues and greens is made possible by quantum dot nanoparticles. Computer chips and electronics include various nanotechnologies that range from the processors themselves to the adhesives and other components used to build electronics. In the medical space, nanomedicine allows for the precision delivery of drugs to certain organs and the controlled release of drugs over time to reduce the frequency of doctor’s visits.
How could nanotechnology serve us even better? What are some future uses?
Personal, immediate, inexpensive home based diagnostic tests are rapidly being developed. For example, if you have chest pain it could be a muscle cramp or a precursor to something more serious, perhaps a heart attack. Typically, you would have to find a clinic, get a blood test and wait a couple of days to hear an answer, but if you have a test in your bathroom that costs just a couple dollars, you can take a saliva sample, apply it to the test, and, in a few minutes, get a result that can be analyzed and interpreted by your cell phone. Bringing inexpensive, quantitative, quick and easy to perform tests into the home is going to revolutionize how we diagnose and treat disease.
Another example is our work with Drugs and Diagnostics for Tropical Diseases (DDTD.org) on coendemic diseases that can be treated with an inexpensive drug. The problem is that if you’re infected with multiple diseases at the same time and you take the drug, you can have severe consequences. If there was a simple test that determined which diseases you were infected with and what drug to safely take, then there is an $1 solution to solving an array of horrific diseases. DDTD has delivered tens of thousands of tests to Africa, and they’re being evaluated in clinical trials to understand how to use these diagnostics to finally address loiasis, onchocerciasis (river blindness), lymphatic filariasis, buruli ulcer and other diseases that don’t belong in this century and should be eradicated.
We’re also working with a company that has developed a novel acne treatment. They apply nanoparticles that strongly absorb light to the skin and use a massager to send the particles into the acne lesion. When you shine a laser on the skin, the laser penetrates through the skin, gets absorbed by the particles, and heats the particles. This local heating is a non-chemical way of damaging or ablating cells. For the acne treatment, if the number of cells in the sebaceous gland (which is responsible for oil production) can be reduced, your acne lesion will clear.
There’s a compliment to the acne technology in the cancer space. Instead using radiation and chemotherapy that have harmful side effects, nanoparticles can be injected to the tumor sites and irradiated with a laser. Just heat (no chemicals) ablate the cancer cells and prostate cancer patients are walking out of the clinic the same day with no side effects. Nanoparticles are also useful for delivering drugs. Chemotherapy is a sledgehammer approach to cancer. Let’s poison ourselves just to the limit that we can stand, and then hopefully it gets the tumor. It would be so much better if we could send the chemical that we want right to the tumor location, reduce the dose by a factor of 10, have all the side effects go away, and still have effective treatment. That’s the promise, and while it takes a long time to safely bring it to market, many nano enabled therapies will soon be available.
If lateral flow tests are simple and not costly, how come their use is not more common?
Lateral flow tests aren’t new. They’ve been around for 20 years. Our innovation was to develop more sensitive reporter particles that allow for lateral flow tests to be more widely used. We went back and re-engineered the particle, so instead of gold spheres, we made a nanoshell which is like a golden eggshell; a glass core that is coated with a very thin shell of gold. By controlling the size of the core and the thickness of the shell, we can create different colors and increase the sensitivity of diagnostic tests. Combining mobile cell phone technology with these new, high sensitivity tests offers the promise of a quantitative diagnostic laboratory in your home.
What was your biggest breakthrough in commercializing nanotechnology?
Our breakthrough is the ability to produce nanoparticles with exquisite control over their size, shape, and surface at a commercially viable price. Rods, shells, cubes, plate, and wire shaped nanoparticles with different surfaces are provided to innovators and inventors so that they can modify, combine, and augment the materials for use in commercial applications. We are also focused on reducing cost. Gold and silver nanoparticles have special properties but these materials are expensive. Our challenge is to find a balance between function, price, performance and scalability in order to get to commercial markets. We’ve had a lot of success achieving this balance in medical device and nanomedicine markets.
What is your next challenge?
It’s been 15 years since we started the company, but a lot of that work has been foundational to build a library of nanomaterials, develop relationships and scale manufacturing. Our next step is to leverage these capabilities to bring more high impact nano-enabled products to market.
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