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Scientific Highlights

Functional Nanofilm for Biomedical Application


Polymeric ultra-thin films show peculiar properties making them potentially useful for several applications in biomedicine. Here we present the more recent advancements we achieved in this field, focusing on functionalized freestanding nanofilms and their applications.

For using nanofilms as plasters to be delivered, targeted and finely positioned in situ on surgical incisions, or to perform therapeutic or treatment tasks, nanofilms must be precisely manipulated. In this vision we succeeded in developing free-standing polyester nanofilms embedding superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPIONs), by using a combination of spin assisted deposition and sacrificial/supporting layer techniques. The resulting freestanding nanofilms have a thickness in the order of 100-300 nm and could be remotely controllable by permanent and gradient magnetic fields, thus opening new application scenarios, as already theoretically and experimentally demonstrated.

By applying a similar approach, our group has developed original techniques for the obtainment of free-standing conductive nanofilms. The patented technologies permit to obtain robust free-standing nanofilms based on conductive polymers (PEDOT/PSS) with relatively easy and cheap processes. The realized nanofilms show typical values of conductivities ranging from 10-1 up to 1000 S/cm (depending on materials formulation and employed processes). Target applications for these materials are: sensing and actuating nanomembranes, locomotion of micro and meso-scale objects in fluids, flexible and smart substrates for cell culturing and stimulation, bio-hybrid actuating devices, scaffolds for regenerative medicine.

Finally, the possibility to finely tune the mechanical properties of freestanding nanofilms have been also successfully exploited to study the mechanobiology of cells adhesion on substrates.

Smart Nanovectors for Cell Stimulation

smart-nanovectors-for-cell-stimulation fig 1

Boron nitride nanotubes, similarly to carbon nanotubes, have attracted wide attention in the nanotechnology field thanks to their potentially unique and important properties in structural and electronic applications. A boron nitride nanotube (BNNT) is a structural analogue of a carbon nanotube (CNT), but, despite this similarity, it presents much more improved chemical and physical properties. Theoretical and experimental data, moreover, demonstrated that they work as excellent piezoelectric systems, with response values larger than those of piezoelectric polymers and comparable to those exhibited by wurtzite semiconductors.

In nanomedicine, BNNTs have also attracted great interest, having our group pioneered biomedical applications of BNNTs. Exploitation of BNNTs range from nanovectors for drug delivery purposes to intracellular nanotransducers.

Our results (recently also extended in vivo) indicate excellent compatibility with biological systems of the proposed vectors, that own a promising capability to modulate the activity of several cells and tissues thanks to their piezoelectricity. This approach could represent in the near future a smart solution to combine topographical, chemical and physical cues into a single platform, for a successful regeneration of different kinds of tissues or biohybrid devices. Among the already mentioned applications in regenerative medicine, the concept of a "wireless" stimulation mediated by piezoelectric materials could find several applications in life sciences wherever electrical stimulation is needed (deep brain stimulation, gastric stimulation, cardiac pacing, skeletal muscle stimulation, etc.).

Smart Solutions From The Plant Kingdom


Plants have evolved very robust growth behaviors (tropisms) to respond to changes in their environment and a network of highly sensorized branching roots to efficiently explore the soil volume, mining minerals and up-taking water. In the root apparatus, each single root has to move through the substrate, orienting along the gravity vector, negotiating obstacles, and locating resources. This behavior is partially achieved by osmotic-based actuation system located in the tip of each root, the apex, which senses several chemical and physical parameters from the surrounding environment and mediates the direction of root growth accordingly. These features represent an interesting source of inspiration to design, develop, and validate a new generation of robotics and ICT hardware and software technologies. New concepts of artefacts inspired from plant roots, called PLANTOIDS and endowed with distributed sensing, actuation, and intelligence for tasks of environmental exploration and monitoring are under investigation at CMBR. The new technologies expected to result from the study of plant roots concern energy-efficient actuation systems, chemical and physical micro-sensors, kinematics models, and distributed, adaptive control in networked structures with local information and communication capabilities. First results have been recently published on Transactions on Mechatronics. Moreover, plant roots are studied as model of swarming behavior. Interactions between individuals that are guided by simple rules can generate swarming behavior. Swarming behavior has been observed in many groups of organisms, including humans, and recent research has revealed that plants also demonstrate social behavior based on mutual interaction with other individuals. However, this behavior has not previously been analyzed in the context of swarming. We have recently shown that roots can be influenced by their neighbors to induce a tendency to align the directions of their growth. In the apparently noisy patterns formed by growing roots, episodic alignments are observed as the roots grow close to each other. These events are incompatible with the statistics of purely random growth. We have presented experimental results and a theoretical model that describes the growth of maize roots in terms of swarming.

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