Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on a molecular scale, brings together different sciences. It is not just about the physics of atomic arrangements, but also about the chemistry of each element involved. The mix becomes yet more complex when living organisms interact with the tiny structures. But by embracing this complexity - bringing together chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers - a research project has provided new insights into nanotechnology.
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The project, BioPolySurf, gathered 30 PhD students to study the relationship between novel materials and nanotechnology. "The aim was to bring ideas and concepts inspired from biology to the existing cutting-edge polymer-based nanotechnology," says BioPolySurf's project coordinator José Carlos Rodríguez-Cabello, a biomaterials and nano-biotechnology researcher at the University of Valladolid in Spain.
BioPolySurf was set up as a Marie Curie Action (MCA), which is a European Union (EU) programme supporting the mobility of researchers. That enabled it to receive a €3.47 million grant from the European Commission during its four-year run from 2004 to 2008. "Living systems display an amazing set of properties at nano-level," says Rodríguez-Cabello. "The idea was to better understand how nature works at those scales. The multidisciplinary team of biologists, biotechnologists, chemists, physicists and engineers was essential as their combined view could answer the right questions and arrive to the adequate explanations."
Working with universities in the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, France, Finland, Switzerland and Turkey, BioPolySurf focused on studying marketable nanotechnology applications. These included tissue engineering and bone regeneration, drug delivery, lab-on-a-chip systems, and devices for agriculture, food packaging, and cosmetics.
As well as studying and training, the students delivered some research breakthroughs that led to papers in eminent publications, patents, and even prompted Rodríguez-Cabello to start a spin-off company. "Part of the knowledge generated within the project is a significant part of our actual know-how in the company," he says.
Rodríguez-Cabello says the project was able to create new materials that revealed properties never seen before. "We are proud to see how our ideas could be a source not just of a business but also the seed of new therapies and products directed to solve health problems in hot areas, such as regenerative medicine," he says.
But BioPolySurf's most lasting legacy is how it brought students from such varied disciplines together to develop new ways of looking at nanotechnology. Rodríguez-Cabello says the complementary views yielded a power that was more that the mere sum of the individual parties.
"From the very beginning, it was clear that synergies would open research possibilities," he says. "The young researchers moved comfortably between areas - like biology, physics, chemistry, and engineering - that are traditionally quite disconnected. They have acquired the 'translation' capacity to understand and communicate between scientists of quite different expertise. And that is a peculiar but valuable ability in their CVs." Most of them now work in industry and academia in areas connected to BioPolySurf, including two who went back to Poland and Portugal, their home countries, to become university researchers.
And even though the project is over now, they built up key professional and personal contacts. "This experience, and the research generated in BioPolySurf, put them in a very good starting position for a research career," Rodríguez-Cabello says.
It also showed that with the right mix and the right goals, different groups can easily overcome language or cultural barriers. "It was inspiring," says Rodríguez-Cabello. "It has not only helped to solve a concrete research problem but also change the existing paradigms on how different scientific disciplines can be studied."