Can algae help create medicinal dressings? Researchers are carefully watching diatoms with an intent to use them for medical purposes

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Researchers from six academic centres in Poland, acting within the BIOG-NET consortium, are carefully watching diatoms – microscopic algae showing a phenomenal ability to synthesise silica of a delicate three-dimensional structure. Their intent is to develop innovative biocomposites which could be used, inter alia, in medicine and cosmetology. The Foundation for Polish Science has allocated PLN 21 million to that research within the TEAM-NET programme.

It is a well-known fact that nature constitutes the most extensive and inspiring source of ideas and solutions to all kinds of human problems. Among the products which were born through mimicking nature are “shark-skinˮ aerodynamic suits, self-cleaning façade paints with a lotus leaf-like structure, building ventilation systems resembling those of termitaries, and artificial neural networks used in modern IT. “Microorganisms, including diatoms which build unique silica cell walls characterised by an extremely complex porous nanostructure, are a rich source of inspiration when it comes to searching for modern technological solutions,” said Prof. Bogusław Buszewski of the Faculty of Chemistry at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, who is acting as the manager of the BIOG-NET research project.

Diatoms are unicellular algae which occur around the globe in all water environments, including ice and snow. Their cell walls made of silica have a diameter of around 10 micrometres, i.e. a hundredth of a millimetre. Although they are so tiny, they have a mesmerising porous structure, with a corrugated and slotted surface. This delicate structure, which is particularly fascinating to researchers and engineers, makes the diatom skeleton a perfect starting point for developing new-generation silica nanomaterials, biocompatible with live organisms. In addition, it can act as a “boxˮ or “storeroomˮ for bioactive substances to be released when needed. Attempts at using diatoms as drug carriers have already been made by several research centres around.

Medicinal dressings of the future

“Our overarching objective is to develop innovative nanosilica composites. We are looking to use skeletons of selected diatom species, and to modify them with various metals, e.g. ruthenium or silver, to provide them with totally new and unique properties. We are expecting that such biocomposites will prove useful for innovative dressings, displaying absorptive properties or capable of releasing certain medicinal substances. These dressings can be potentially used in treatment of slow-healing wounds, bedsores or skin infections,” explained Prof. Bogusław Buszewski.

However, in order for such dressings to be produced, it is first necessary to establish the conditions conductive to an efficient growing of diatoms, along with advanced and precise imaging and modelling of their surface structures, followed by functionalising, i.e. modifying the silica nanostructures obtained from the algae. For this reason, six research centres have been engaged in the BIOG-NET project. These include, along with the Faculty of Chemistry at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, the Faculty of Geosciences at the University of Szczecin, the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Białystok University of Technology, the Faculty of Chemistry at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, the Faculty of Materials Science and Engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology, and the Faculty of Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn. The research activities of all these academic centres are fully synergic, and such a wide cooperation provides a guarantee of obtaining high-quality reliable and reproducible results. With the Toruń Dressing Materials Factory acting as the strategic partner of the BIOG-NET project, the researchers are hoping for prompt commercialisation of the functionalised silica nanomaterials they are expected to develop. “Pharmaceutical companies and producers of dietary supplements and household chemicals have also expressed interest in our research. Using the research outcomes in cosmetology seems another opportunity worth exploring,” stressed Prof. Buszewski. Thus, the industrial project partners include such companies as Sygnis and AdvaChemLab.

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fot. Andrzej Romański_UMK