In this reconstruction by Matthew Landry, nanoparticles (blue spheres) travel through a nanochannel (red) similar in dimensions to what will be used in the space-bound experiments. (Image credit: Methodist Hospital Research Institute)
A microgravity experiment designed at The Methodist Hospital Research Institute will be funded by The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to fly aboard the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory. The proposal to study the diffusion of drug-like particles will receive about $200,000 from CASIS, which is directed by Congress to manage, promote, and broker research for the orbiting U.S. National Laboratory. If all goes well on Earth, the experiment will go to the International Space Station as early as 2014. Principal investigator Alessandro Grattoni, Ph.D., and a team of scientists from Methodist, BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, will study the movement of drug-like particles through tiny channels. The scientists' ultimate goal is improving implantable devices that release pharmaceutical drugs at a steady rate. Nearly all drugs taken orally spike in concentration, decay quickly, and are only at their peak effectiveness for a short period of time. Grattoni and co-PI Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D., have been working on a solution -- nanocapsules implanted beneath the skin that release pharmaceutical drugs through a nanochannel membrane and into the body at a sustained, steady rate. To design better nanochannels for a given drug, Grattoni says he and others need to improve their understanding of the underlying physics. Grattoni's group will look at two things they believe play a major role in how particles move through channels -- the relative size of particle to channel, as well as charge (plus/minus) interactions between the particle and channel. The fluorescent silicon particles will diffuse into an empty chamber through a long series of narrow channels. Photographs taken periodically with a fluorescent microscope will show the scientists how -- and how quickly -- the particles move, how charge gradients affect the particles, and the effects of size constraints. The experiment will be performed over three months.