Lab name: Organic Nanomaterials and Delivery

Lead professor: Alberto Bianco

Location: Institut de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire, CNRS, UPR3572, Immunopathologie et Chimie Thérapeutique, Strasbourg, France


Alberto Bianco (fourth from left) and his research group.
Alberto Bianco (fourth from left) and his research group.
Functionalized carbon nanotubes are able to penetrate into the cells as 'nanoneedles' and deliver their therapeutic cargos. Reproduced with permission from: Bianco A. et al. Chem. Commun. 2005, 571-577. Copyright 2005, the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Functionalized carbon nanotubes are able to penetrate into the cells as 'nanoneedles' and deliver their therapeutic cargos. Reproduced with permission from: Bianco A. et al. Chem. Commun. 2005, 571-577. Copyright 2005, the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Top form carbon

Carbon comes in many forms. One form that has attracted unprecedented attention in recent decades is the nanotube – a rolled up cylinder of one or more sheets of carbon atoms. Its unique properties at the nanoscale have multitudinous possibilities from next-generation electronics to revolutionary biomedical devices.

When it comes to biomedicine, carbon nanotubes have many attractive attributes. Nanotubes can form complexes with biological molecules like proteins, polysaccharides, and nucleic acids. Their surface can be decorated with bioactive molecules like peptides and small drugs can decorate the surface of nanotube to add function. Together with the discovery that functionalized nanotubes can penetrate into cells, this form of carbon has opened up new ways of delivering drugs, acting as diagnosis agents, and modulating cellular interactions or activity.

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Materials Today spoke to Alberto Bianco about his work…

How long has the group been running?

I have been a CNRS Research Director since 2006, but my group has been running since 2002, soon after I was appointed to the CNRS as a Researcher.

How many staff make-up your group?

The group is currently composted of one CNRS Researcher, one assistant engineer, three post-docs, and three PhD students. The number of members is evolving according to research contracts. We also sometimes host foreign researchers during their sabbatical leave from other research institutes and universities.

What are the major themes of research in your lab?

The research activity of our team is mainly focused on the development of novel vectors based on carbon nanomaterials (carbon nanotubes, graphene, and adamantane) for biomedical applications. We are exploring the multi-functionalization of carbon nanomaterials to link different types of molecules. Our objective is to create multimodal systems not only capable of delivering a therapeutic agent but that can also be tracked and are capable of reaching the desired organ or tissue once modified with a targeting ligand.

We are also comprehensively studying the health impact and the toxicity effects of functionalized carbon nanomaterials and analyzing the mechanisms of cell penetration, organ biodistribution, routes of elimination, and biodegradability profile. We have recently proposed a new concept based on the functionalization of carbon nanomaterials with specific ligands to enhance their biodegradability. This will allow the design of safer conjugates.

We believe that our findings support the development of functionalized carbon nanomaterials as a promising class of carriers in biomedicine.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

Ever since starting my PhD, I have been fascinated by the different forms of carbon. In my early career, I started working with fullerene and its potential applications in the biomedical domain. Later, when I began my independent career, I had the opportunity to work again with another form of carbon. I became interested in functionalized carbon nanotubes and their application as new therapeutic tools. In collaboration with Maurizio Prato at the University of Trieste and then with Kostas Kostarelos at the University of Manchester, I have started to explore the potential of carbon nanotubes for applications in therapy, imaging, and theranostics. More recently, my interests have turned to the graphene family materials. All these forms of carbon hold great promise and chemistry provides a powerful instrument to tune their properties at will.

What has been your most influential work to date?

I have no doubt that my most influential work was the discovery of the capacity of functionalized carbon nanotubes to penetrate into cells without inducing cell death [1]. This was a pioneering discovery that opened the way to the exploration of carbon nanotubes as new drug delivery systems. Building on this discovery, we have worked to understand the mechanism of cell uptake [2]. More recently we have proved that organic functionalization with appropriate functional groups and ligands alleviates the pathogenic risks of carbon nanotubes [3] and can enhance their biodegradability [4].

What facilities and equipment does your lab have?

Our laboratory enables an exceptional research environment in terms of infrastructure and equipment. We are fully equipped with facilities for organic and peptide synthesis. We have many analytical instruments for the characterization of our molecules. We also have fully equipped cell culture rooms and an animal house facility where we can test the biological activity and impact of our conjugates in cellular and animal models. In addition, we have access a broad range of advanced facilities provided by the University of Strasbourg.

Do you have a favourite piece of kit or equipment?

I do not have a particular favorite instrument, but I consider all of the equipment our daily ‘friends’, fundamental to the progress of our research.

What is the key to running a successful lab?

I believe that there are several important keys that help support success in research. I try to communicate my own strong personal motivation and commitment to my students and collaborators. It is important to rely on good, motivated students and post-docs. But it is also fundamental to have a positive atmosphere in the lab to facilitate and foster mutual exchange. I have also experienced extremely fruitful collaborations simply by serendipity. I believe this happened not only because of common research interests, but also as a result of deeper feelings that go beyond such interests and are based on real friendships.

How do you plan to develop the lab in the future?

The current size of my group is around ten – a size that is easy to handle. I think it is also the optimum size to create a good synergy between all group members. But the core lab needs to be complemented by strong and fruitful collaborations. I believe it is also necessary to guarantee the appropriate space and facilities for students to carry out their projects to the best of their abilities.

I would be happy to increase my group, in the future, but this expansion would have to come with more lab space and, above all, a guarantee of the necessary funding.

With my current human capacity and financial support, I plan to continue to explore carbon nanomaterials in the biomedical field and I am trying to expand some of the studies to include other new 2D materials.

Key publications

1. D. Pantarotto, J.-P. Briand, M. Prato, A. Bianco. Translocation of bioactive peptides across cell membranes by carbon nanotubes. Chemical Communications (2004) 16-17, DOI: 10.1039/b311254c

2. K. Kostarelos, L. Lacerda, G. Pastorin, W. Wu, S. Wieckowski, J. Luangsivilay, S. Godefroy, D. Pantarotto, J.-P. Briand, S. Muller, M. Prato, A. Bianco. Functionalised carbon nanotube cellular uptake and internalisation mechanism is independent of functional group and cell type. Nature Nanotechnology (2007) 2, 108-113, DOI: 10.1038/nnano.2006.209

3. H. Ali-Boucetta, A. Nunes, R. Sainz, M. A. Herrero, B. Tian, M. Prato, A. Bianco, K. Kostarelos. Asbestos-like pathogenicity of long carbon nanotubes alleviated by chemical functionalization. Angewandte Chemie International Edition (2013) 52, 2274-2278, DOI:10.1002/anie.201207664

4. A. R. Sureshbabu, R. Kurapati, J. Russier, C. Ménard-Moyon, I. Bartolini, M. Meneghetti, K. Kostarelos, A. Bianco. Degradation-by-design: Surface modification with functional substrates that enhance the enzymatic degradation of carbon nanotubes. Biomaterials (2015) 72, 20-28, DOI:10.1016/j.biomaterials.2015.08.046

5. X. Liu, I. Marangon, G. Melinte, C. Wilhelm, C. Ménard-Moyon, B. Pichon, O. Ersen, K. Aubertin, W. Baaziz, C. Pham Huu, S. Bégin-Colin, A. Bianco, F. Gazeau, D. Bégin. Design of covalently functionalized carbon nanotubes filled with metallic nanoparticles for imaging, therapy and magnetic manipulation. ACS Nano (2014) 8, 11290-11304, DOI: 10.1021/nn5040923

6. R. Kurapati, J. Russier, M. A. Squillaci, E. Treossi, C. Ménard-Moyon, A. E. Del Rio-Castillo, E. Vazquez, P. Samorì, V. Palermo, A. Bianco. Dispersibility-dependent biodegradation of graphene oxide by myeloperoxidase. Small (2015) 11, 3985-3994, DOI: 10.1002/smll.201500038