Harnessing diatoms, a type of microscopic algae, as a platform for drug delivery has been the focus of one of many research projects funded by Science Foundation Ireland at the Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials (NFB) at NUI Galway. Research describing methods to alter the chemical composition and architectural features of diatoms has recently been published in the November issueof Nature Communications. With an impact factor of 10.015, Nature Communications is rated third among all multidisciplinary science primary research journals for 2012.
The production of nanomaterials is a fast developing field of nanotechnology. The synthesis of nanomaterials varying in chemical composition and size is challenging. Biological structures inspire for the design and fabrication of advanced nanostructured materials. A variety of organisms is capable of synthesising complicated architectures, among which are diatoms.
Diatoms are microalgae found in both freshwater and seawater environments. To date over 100,000 species have been identified. Diatoms have enormous ecological importance and contain nano-scale diverse patterns and structures. Current engineering practices cannot manufacture the highly elaborate architecture of diatoms.
Diatoms and their unique architecture are currently being investigated as new, effective vehicles for drug and gene delivery. In this application, the diatom would carry an appropriate amount of drug or gene to the desired site (e.g., tumours or diseased tissues), while minimising undesired side effects of the drugs on other tissues. 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, a PhD student at the NFB, collected diatoms from Galway Bay and cultured them in the laboratory. Her work was supervised by NUI Galway’s Professor Abhay Pandit and co-supervised by Dr David Finn. Yvonne’s research involved altering the chemistry of the living diatom and tailoring it for its intended application. The results presented in Nature Communications describe this innovative strategy, and how various microscopy techniques enabled both chemical and architectural modifications to be monitored in microscopic algae. An extension of this work will allow this natural resource to be harnessed for the preparation of biocompatible structures for the delivery of therapeutics.