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martes, 22 de enero 2019
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Nanobioengineering: Innovative health solutions

Photos by Juan Diego Restrepo Toro

By Juan Diego Restrepo Toro – Office of Communications


Encapsulating drugs at the nanoscale to direct them specifically to the organs affected by a disease or applying a therapy through nanocapsules with natural anticancer-property fruit extracts, such as mango, passion fruit, and agrás, are some of the examples of nanobioengineering, a high-impact scientific research field for the health, the environment, and the food industry.

“We develop devices and materials to study matter at the nanoscopic scale,” explains Jahir Orozco Holguín, leader of the Max Planck Tandem Group in Nanobioengineering at Universidad de Antioquia. This group is also working on a small, low-cost, portable, Zika-virus sensor that can be used anywhere by people who do not have much training.

Nanoscience is a growing and relatively new field “in which nanomaterials and nanodevices are used to study matter in greater detail. In the group, we combine those nanomaterials with bioelements, such as bioreceptors, biomolecules, proteins, DNA strands, or cells; we make hybrids between nanostructured inorganic materials and bioreceptors for different uses,” clarifies Jahir Orozco. The group works in three research lines: Development of disease diagnostic tools, study of the host-pathogen interaction, and development of disease intervention tools.

The group started out in October 2016, and it is currently made up of three PhD students and three master’s students, including biological engineers, biologists, chemists, and chemical engineers. It is in line with the German Max Planck Society and is called tandem because, even though it works independently, it follows the same course of action. “A typical example of a tandem is a bicycle,” says Orozco: “two chain wheels, two individual bodies that, independently, move in the same direction and have the same goal.”

Zika nanobiosensor

The Zika virus affects populations in tropical areas and is spreading to other areas because of climate change. Since its symptoms are similar to those of other diseases, such as dengue and chikungunya, it is necessary to tell the Zika virus apart and detect it on time, especially on pregnant women because it can cause congenital defects on the fetus, such as the Guillain-Barré syndrome or microcephaly.

This project began in partnership with the Tropical Disease Study and Control Program (abbreviated PECET in Spanish) in 2016, when an important outbreak of Zika virus took place in Colombia. According to Orozco, “we want to develop a genomic virus-RNA-based sensor that can detect the virus and distinguish it from dengue and chikungunya; it should be inexpensive, portable and easy to use because there is a trend toward personalized medicine, in which patients can monitor the virus variables and detect it themselves.”




Encapsulated drugs

Nanocapsules are shells containing different active components or medicines. Since 2017, the group has been working along with the Corporation for Biological Research (abbreviated CIB in Spanish) on a project with Colciencias to encapsulate itraconazole, an antifungal medication that is effective against disease-producing fungi, such as Histoplasma capsulatum, but leads to adverse effects on organs such as the liver, kidney, or spleen.

After encapsulating itraconazole in biocompatible nanoparticles, they are directed selectively through a bioreceptor. “There is a prevailing need to fight the fungus, but also to avoid the drug’s adverse effects. We believe that by encapsulating it and directing it towards the macrophages bearing the fungus, the adverse effects would lessen; moreover, we could reduce the dose, have a more efficient and effective therapy, and help diminish the resistance of some antibiotic and antifungal agents,” adds Orozco Holguín.


Anticancer agents 

The members of the group work on encapsulating natural extracts of mango, passion fruit and agrás, fruits with tested anticancer properties. They also want to do the same with chemotherapy agents such as curcumin and fluorouracil and with hybrids of both. “We want to compare the effects of natural extracts, synthetic molecules, and hybrids of these molecules on carcinogenic cells,” states Jahir Orozco.

This project was made possible thanks to the last call of the Colombia Científica program in which the group was selected. “We are going to develop strategies to prevent, diagnose, and treat colon cancer,” specifies Orozco, who believes that Universidad de Antioquia and Colombia are aligned with the global research trends. “Other countries are more experienced; and although there is some experience in Colombia, we have a long way to go.”

Photo by Juan Diego Restrepo Toro: Research Group in Nanobioengineering



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