For the first time, University
of Florida researchers have developed plant-based
technology that could reduce America’s
dependence on foreign oil and may also help treat cancer.
Known as lignin nanotubes, these cylindrical containers
are smaller than viruses and tiny enough to travel through the body, carrying
cancer patients’ medicine. They can be created in biorefineries from lignin, a
plant substance that is a byproduct of bioethanol production.
Bioethanol is a renewable alternative to fossil fuel
created by fermenting sugar—such as that from sugarcane and sweet sorghum
juices, stalks, and stems.
“We’re looking at biomedical applications whereby these
nanotubes are injected in the body,” said Wilfred Vermerris, an associate
professor in UF’s agronomy department and Genetics Institute who was part of
the team that developed the nanotubes. The team’s work is described in Nanotechnology.
Carbon-based nanotubes, which are the kind used today,
cost around $500 a gram, and nanotechnology drug delivery has been projected to
be a $220 billion market by 2015.
Nanotubes offer an advantage over radiation or
traditional chemotherapy because they have a protective shell that keeps the
drugs they contain from affecting healthy parts of the body, such as hair or
intestinal lining, said Vermerris, a member of UF’s Institute of Food
and Agricultural Sciences.
As with current carbon nanotubes, cancer-fighting drugs
can be enclosed in the plant-based nanotubes and sent to target specific
tumors, he said.
But, the researcher said, unlike currently used carbon
nanotubes, lignin nanotubes are flexible and lack sharp edges. That means
they’re expected to have fewer, if any, of the toxicity issues associated with
“It is also much easier to chemically modify the lignin
nanotubes so that they can locate their intended targets like homing devices,”
Vermerris envisions nanotubes as a way to reduce the
cost of biofuel production.
“By selling the nanotubes for biomedical applications,
an additional revenue stream is generated for the biorefinery that can offset
some of the processing costs,” he said. “That essentially reduces the price of
the fuels and makes them more competitive with petroleum-based fuel.”
Luisa Amelia Dempere, an associate engineer and director
of the Major Analytical
in UF’s College
of Engineering, guided
the analysis and characterization of the lignin nanotubes as part of the
She called the development of the lignin nanotubes “quite significant” and noted their ability to break down in the environment as
another advantage over current nanotubes.
“They are taking something from the waste stream, like
lignin is for a lot of industries, and making it into something that can be
useful and then can degrade back into the environment,” Dempere said. “This is
probably a material that can be called green and sustainable because it comes
from nature and goes back to nature.”
UF has applied for a patent on the technology.
Vermerris said his research is now testing the
technology in living cells in the lab as a first step toward tests in humans in
the near future.