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New screening method helps scientists identify key information rapidly

March 2012

Northwestern University scientists have developed a powerful analytical method that they have used to direct stem cell differentiation. Out of millions of possibilities, they rapidly identified the chemical and physical structures that can cue stem cells to become osteocytes, cells found in mature bone.

Researchers can use the method, called nanocombinatorics, to build enormous libraries of physical structures varying in size from a few nanometers to many micrometers for addressing problems within and outside biology. Those in the fields of chemistry, materials engineering and nanotechnology could use this invaluable tool to assess which chemical and physical structures -- including size, shape and composition -- work best for a desired process or function.

Nanocombinatorics holds promise for screening catalysts for energy conversion, understanding properties conferred by nanostructures, identifying active molecules for drug discovery or even optimizing materials for tissue regeneration, among other applications. Details of the method and proof of concept is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"With further development, researchers might be able to use this approach to prepare cells of any lineage on command," said Chad A. Mirkin, PhD, who led the work. "Insight into such a process is important for understanding cancer development and for developing novel cancer treatment methodologies." Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Medicine, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and a member of the Lurie Cancer Center. He also is the Director of Northwestern's International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN).

The new analytical method utilizes a technique invented at Northwestern called polymer pen lithography, where basically a rubber stamp having as many as 11 million sharp pyramids is mounted on a transparent glass backing and precisely controlled by an atomic force microscope to generate desired patterns on a surface. Each pyramid -- a polymeric pen -- is coated with molecules for a particular purpose.

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(Last updated on June 25, 2013 )