New Argovia projects

In early 2017, the Argovia committee selected new projects to be funded through the Nano Argovia program. Here and in the next issue of SNI update, we present the new projects launched on April 1, 2017.

A3EDPI – Structural analysis with diffracted electrons
In the A3EDPI Argovia project, an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), C-CINA (Biozentrum, University of Basel), Novartis Pharma AG, F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG, and Dectris AG is investigating whether electron nanocrystallography can be used in pharma research to clarify the three-dimensional structure of organic agents. Dr. Tim Grüne from the PSI is leading the project, which aims to improve data collection and processing in electron nanocrystallography and clarify its relevance for developing pharmaceutical agents.

To efficiently develop new active pharmaceutical ingredients and obtain approval, researchers require the exact three-dimensional structure of the substances. If they consist of individual crystals, the spatial structure can be determined using X-ray structural analysis. In many cases, however, scientists have access only to powder, blends of crystalline grains between 10–500 nanometers in size.

The A3EDPI project is now investigating whether electron nanocrystallography can be used efficiently to clarify the spatial structure of the different molecules. To do so, the samples are exposed to a high-energy electron beam. The electrons have wave properties; depending on how the atoms are arranged, a very specific diffraction pattern is produced for each molecule that provides insights into their atomic structure.

Initial experiments using a few model substances have already returned data of outstanding quality. The team is now investigating whether electron nanocrystallography can be further developed into an attractive standard for the pharma and chemical industry, and whether performance and quality requirements for industrial applications can be fulfilled.

AntibakVlies – Less bacteria on non-woven materials
In the AntibakVlies Argovia project, scientists at the School of Engineering (FHNW), the School of Life Sciences (FHNW), and Jakob Härdi AG are developing a new procedure to equip non-woven material with antibacterial and hydrophilic properties. The researchers are also working on an efficient testing method to analyze the antibacterial efficiency of the material. There are currently no materials with the desired combination of properties, which is why the project team led by Dr. Sonja Neuhaus from the Institute of Polymer Nanotechnology (INKA, School of Engineering) is aiming to modify existing non-woven materials.

From previous projects, the researchers know that functionalized synthetic surfaces can be produced via e-grafting. This method involves impregnating the material with various compounds and then irradiating it with low-energy electrons. If the conditions are right, this can create a covalent and thus permanent bond. In the AntibakVlies project, different combinations of antibacterial polymers are now being examined to prevent a wide range of bacteria from growing.

Microslide – snakeskin inspires reduced friction
In the Microslide Argovia project, scientists from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) and the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) are working with Brugg Drahtseil AG (a company based in Birr) to improve the anti-friction and anti-wear properties of flat belts, as used in elevators, for example. The researchers are taking inspiration from nature; the animal kingdom offers numerous examples of special surface structures that enable gliding movement with little friction.

The team, led by Dr. Christian Rytka from the Institute of Polymer Nanotechnology (INKA), plans to apply a scale-like structure, as seen in snakes, for example, to the surface of polyurethane bands used for lifting. This structure will permanently improve anti-friction properties and therefore reduce the wear on the bands. Initially, a testing facility is to be constructed that will allow bands of various structures to be compared with those used today. The properties of different surface structures will then be examined on small areas embossed using a roll-to-roll process. Subsequently, the researchers plan to produce the first prototypes.

MiPIS – Quick protein processing for analysis
In the MiPIS project, scientists from C-CINA (Biozentrum, University of Basel) and the School of Life Sciences (FHNW) are working with their industrial partner leadXpro AG (based in Villigen) on a microfluidic system to process proteins and prepare samples for analysis using cryo-electron microscopy. The project is led by Dr. Thomas Braun (C-CINA) and builds on previous work supported by the SNI.

Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) is now an established standard method for clarifying the atomic structure of complex proteins, for example to develop new active ingredients for drugs. Compared with other processes, cryo-EM requires much lower quantities of protein – just a few nanoliters – while providing precise images at atomic resolution. The traditional methods of processing proteins do not always meet the requirements of cryo-EM because they are time-consuming, require larger quantities of protein, and sometimes corrupt the spatial arrangement of the protein complexes. The scientists in the MiPIS project are now using microfluidic systems to prepare samples and hope to see major advantages over the traditional methods.

A microfluidic system has already been developed at C-CINA in which a sample is placed directly on a slide required for electron microscopy. This system is now to be further developed within the MiPIS Argovia project so that proteins can be cleaned, stabilized, and prepared for cryo-EM analysis within two hours without losing their spatial structure.