UCLA researchers are using microscopic carbon molecules for medical procedures and experiments ranging from cancer drug delivery to root canals.
These microscopic carbon molecules, known as nanodiamonds, are five nanometers in diameter and shaped like soccer balls with sharper edges, said Dean Ho, a professor in the School of Dentistry. Ho, who has researched the various medical applications of nanodiamonds, published a paper last week on using nanodiamonds to prevent tooth infection and breakage in root canals.
Ho said the special molecular shape of the nanodiamond creates electrostatic properties that allow it to bind to a variety of drugs and kill or inhibit microorganisms such as bacteria.
Nanodiamonds are well-suited for biomedical use because they are carbon based and carbon is not toxic to the body, Ho said. He added nanodiamonds are easily produced as a byproduct of mining and can be cleaned for medical use.
“In nanodiamond production, the main thing is to be able to make a lot and in uniform fashion,” Ho said.
Ho said he thought of using nanodiamonds for root canal procedures after he underwent the procedure himself and asked his dentist about its difficulties and risks.
“Filling out a root canal isn’t simply filling up one hole in the tooth,” he said. “There are many narrow crevices and tunnels in a tooth where bacteria proliferate, and you have to fill those void spaces, which is very time consuming.”
The tooth filling, known as the gutta-percha, can also break during a root canal procedure, possibly leading to infection, Ho added. However, in his study, Ho found the gutta-percha is less likely to break during a root canal procedure when it is embedded with nanodiamonds. This could make it easier for dentists to perform the procedure.
Ho has also been studying how nanodiamonds can be used to efficiently deliver cancer drugs.
Cancer drugs can be highly toxic to the patient’s body and ineffective if the tumor cells pump them out, Ho said. He said nanodiamonds can travel through the bloodstream and release the drug directly to the tumor without affecting other parts of the body.
“Nanodiamonds allow the drug to directly obliterate tumors, but still be safe,” he said. “A lethal amount of a widely used cancer drug, NDX, had no toxicity for patients when delivered with a nanodiamond.”
Edward Chow, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore and UCLA alumnus who studies nanodiamonds with Ho, said he is also researching treating cancer and other diseases by using nanodiamonds to deliver small protein peptides to cells.
“Delivery of peptides can be difficult because they can easily degrade in the body,” Chow said. “However, when attached to nanodiamonds, they can be delivered without degrading.”
Louis Bouchard, an associate professor in chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, said he has used nanodiamonds to sense electric fields in cardiac muscle cells.
“Nanodiamonds are an alternative to voltage-sensing dyes, which can be toxic to cells,” he said. “Nanodiamonds are not toxic, and can measure the electric field for longer periods of time.”
Bouchard added nanodiamonds can also help researchers determine precise temperature measurements, such as determining temperature change in a cell’s mitochondria as they metabolize and produce energy.
Ho said he hopes more people, including younger students, learn about the benefits of nanodiamonds. He has written two children’s comics this year depicting nanodiamonds as superheroes that defeat bacterial enemies, and hopes to create a toy as well.
He added he plans to continue clinical trials for nanodiamond-embedded gutta-percha, and expand nanodiamond applications to other diseases as well.
“Nanotechnology and nanodiamonds are still a relatively new field,” Ho said. “But the objective is still the same: to help heal patients and their doctors that treat them.”