Large European project to investigate the synthesis of luminescent carbon nanoparticles

The European Research Council has just published the list of new advanced research projects that will be financed over the next five years. These are the prestigious ERC Advanced Grants, endowed with 2.5 million euros each, which are awarded to research projects of great potential that can imply important advances and offer solutions to some of the greatest current challenges. The leader of the CIC biomaGUNE Carbon Bionanotechnology group, Professor Ikerbasque and AXA Chair Maurizio Prato, is one of the scientists who will receive one of these endowments, which are awarded to develop the most creative ideas, as well as projects they carry out a decisive role in the advancement of all domains of knowledge. This is already the second Advanced Grant awarded to Prato in his research career.

The project to be financed with said funds carries the acronym e-DOTS. It is a fundamental research project whose objective is "to investigate the structure and properties of the so-called carbon nanopoints or nanodots, in order to synthesize them exactly with the properties that we want them to have," says Prato. Nanodots are spherical nanoparticles (measuring about 3 or 4 millionths of a millimeter) composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, which are synthesized by treating organic molecules at temperatures between 200 and 300 °C. The solubility in water and other solvents, as well as the intense luminescence of these nanodots, gives them ideal properties for use in biomedical imaging, with applications in both new therapies and diagnostics. The ERC has valued that this "is a project that can transform nanodots from a purely academic level to a level of application in nanomedicine and in medical science, in general."

"The structure of nanodots is still not well understood. At the temperatures to which the reagents are subjected, much more complicated structures are obtained than the original ones, and we do not yet know them. We know that depending on the synthesis method, that is, using different compounds for its formation, its properties can be modified. And that is precisely the main objective of this project: to get to know in detail the structure, chemical reactivity and properties of these materials, understand how they are formed and get to modify them in the way we want, "says the researcher. According to Prato, nanodots have a central nucleus, where the so-called chromophores are located, which provide them with the properties of luminescence, and externally they are covered with carbon chains “with different functions, which can serve to direct these nanoparticles to a target in concrete".

Automated system to discover new nanodots

In addition to studying how these nanoparticles are formed and understanding what type of structures can be formed, “we also want to apply an automated system to discover new nanodots using a new method to optimize their synthesis; that is to say, a kind of robot that prepares new nanoparticles, analyzes them and tells us if the properties are better or worse than we expect, to help us understand how to synthesize the best nanopoints and what properties we can introduce to them, "explains Prato. Thus, they will be able to modulate the properties of nanodots: using different compounds in the synthesis reaction, "we will be able to change the nucleus and the external part, to achieve the desired properties," he adds.

Delving into the fundamental aspects of carbon nanodots will allow them to unleash their full potential in technological and biological applications, which can range from high-quality bioimaging to green catalysis in water. "They can be used in organic catalysis systems, to obtain compounds with a high added value. On the other hand, we hope to synthesize contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging; and, in addition, if we load these nanodots with therapeutic molecules, we can use them as both a therapeutic and a diagnostic element (this emerging field is called teragnostics) ”, explains Professor Ikerbasque.

They could be used as markers in biological systems, "so depending on the external structure of nanodots we can direct them to a particular type of cell, that is, we could identify cancer cells through this system." For this, he states that it is important to establish a biosecurity profile of nanodots, since “it is still not well known how they interact with cells and living beings. It is important to be sure that they are completely innocuous ”, although it advances that according to the studies that they have already carried out“ it is seen that they do not have toxicity ”.