Medicine Beads

Author: John Monczunski

Agnes Ostafin makes tiny hollow glass beads. They are functional, not decorative. And someday they might save your life. Thousands of the beads, called nanoshells, could sit on the period at the end of this sentence.

The assistant professor of chemical engineering has been able to fill the beads with liquid molecules and then release them at will, an ability that makes the nanoshells a good candidate to deliver drugs.

“We program the shell so that it has pores of a specific size and geometry,” Ostafin explains. By lining the pores with certain molecules that react to light, the shape and size of the pores can be changed, allowing the drug to seep out. “We can’t inject our devices into the blood stream because they’re hard. But the advantage is that we can control when things are released.”

The technology might be useful in treating diabetes. Nanoshells could be filled with insulin and placed on some type of patch beneath the skin, Ostafin says. The nanoshell could be engineered in such a way that when excess glucose was detected, the pores would open and release the insulin.

Recently Ostafin’s research group successfully made nanoshells out of calcium phosphate, the stuff of bones. And that holds promise for treating osteoporosis. The idea is to make a slurry of bone beads filled with the hormone that stimulates bone growth. The bone beads could be painted on the affected bone and eventually would be integrated into the natural bone, strengthening it, Ostafin suggests.