Chance discovery could see graphene used for medical purposes


Researchers from Monash University have come across a startling discovery which is expected to broaden the range of application of graphene — a fullerene consisting of bonded carbon atoms in the form of a very thin, nearly transparent sheet — from its known use in electronics, energy storage and energy generation into the medical science and human health.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons User: Alexander AlUS
Graphine, dubbed as the “next big thing” in materials science, has been recently discovered to change structure and become liquid crystal droplets — honing the possibility to be used for medical purposes. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons User: Alexander AlUS)

Surprisingly happened during routine tests on the “wonder material”, the team of scientists from Monash University has discovered that graphene oxide sheets can change structure to become liquid crystal droplets spontaneously and without any specialist equipment.

Usually atomisers and mechanical equipment are needed to change graphene into a spherical form. In this case all the team did was to put the graphene sheets in a solution to process it for industrial use. Under certain pH conditions the team of scientists found that graphene behaves like a polymer — changes shape by itself.

This means that graphene droplets will now be easy to produce, opening up possibilities for use in drug delivery and disease detection.

Dr Mainak Majumder from the Faculty of Engineering said because graphene droplets change their structure in response to the presence of an external magnetic field, it could be used for controlled drug release applications.

“Drug delivery systems tend to use magnetic particles, which are very effective, but they can’t always be used because these particles can be toxic in certain physiological conditions,” Dr Majumder said in a media release.

“In contrast, graphene doesn’t contain any magnetic properties. This, combined with the fact that we have proved it can be changed into liquid crystal simply and cheaply, strengthens the prospect that it may one day be used for a new kind of drug delivery system.”

First author of the paper, Ms Rachel Tkacz from the Faculty of Engineering, said the discovery was a landmark achievement which could revolutionise medical diagnostics.

“To be able to spontaneously change the structure of graphene from single sheets to a spherical assembly is hugely significant. No one thought that was possible. We’ve proved it is,” Ms Tkacz said.

“Now we know that graphene-based assemblies can spontaneously change shape under certain conditions, we can apply this knowledge to see if it changes when exposed to toxins, potentially paving the way for new methods of disease detection as well.”

Dr Majumder and his team are working with graphite industry partner, Strategic Energy Resources Ltd, and an expert in polarised light imaging, Dr Rudolf Oldenbourg from the Marine Biological Laboratory, USA, to explore how this work can be translated and commercialised.

The research was funded by an ARC Linkage grant awarded to Monash University and its findings were published in the journal ChemComm.