New thin film research opens up the potential for a whole new class of materials

A barium zirconium sulfide thin film created by the research team.
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Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

As predicted by theorists, experiments show that barium zirconium sulfide thin films hold great promise for solar cells, LEDs

Scientists have created thin films made from barium zirconium sulfide (BaZrS3) and confirmed that the materials have alluring electronic and optical properties predicted by theorists.

The films combine exceptionally strong light absorption with good charge transport — two qualities that make them ideal for applications such as photovoltaics and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

In solar panels, for example, experimental results suggest that BaZrS3 films would be much more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than traditional silicon-based materials with identical thicknesses, says lead researcher Hao Zeng, PhD, professor of physics in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. This could lower solar energy costs, especially because the new films performed admirably even when they had imperfections. (Manufacturing nearly flawless materials is typically more expensive, Zeng explains.)

“For many decades, there have been only a handful of semiconductor materials that have been used, with silicon being the dominant material,” Zeng says. “Our thin films open the door to a new direction in semiconductor research. There’s a chance to explore the potential of a whole new class of materials.”

The study was published in November in the journal Nano Energy.

UB physics PhD students Xiucheng Wei and Haolei Hui were the first authors. The project — funded by a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot award and National Science Foundation (NSF) Sustainable Chemistry, Engineering and Materials award — included contributions from researchers at UB; Taiyuan Normal University, Southern University of Science & Technology, Xi’an Jiaotong University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, all in China; Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Experiments inspired by theoretical predictions

BaZrS3 belongs to a category of materials known as chalcogenide perovskites, which are nontoxic, earth-abundant compounds. In recent years, theorists have calculated that various chalcogenide perovskites should exhibit useful electronic and optical properties, and these predictions have captured the interest and imagination of experimentalists like Zeng.

BaZrS3 is not a totally new material. Zeng looked into the history of the compound, and found information dating back to the 1950s.

“It has existed for more than half a century,” he says. “Among earlier research, a company in Niagara Falls produced it in powder form. I think people paid little attention to it.”

But thin films — not powder — are needed for applications such as photovoltaics and LEDs, so that’s what Zeng’s team set out to create.

The researchers crafted their BaZrS3 films by using a laser to heat up and vaporize barium zirconium oxide. The vapor was deposited on a sapphire surface, forming a film, and then converted into the final material through a chemical reaction called sulfurization.

“Semiconductor research has traditionally been highly focused on conventional materials,” Hui says. “This is an opportunity to explore something new. Chalcogenide perovskites share some similarities to the widely researched halide perovskites, but do not suffer from the toxicity and instability of the latter materials.”

“Now that we have a thin film made from BaZrS3, we can study its fundamental properties and how it might be used in solar panels, LEDs, optical sensors and other applications,” Wei says.

Learn more: Scientists create thin films with tantalizing electronic properties

 

 

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Protecting against memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease with a Phase 2 clinical trial drug

via University at Buffalo

The drug is now in Phase 2 clinical trials in patients with Alzheimer’s and Fragile X syndrome

A new drug discovered through a research collaboration between the University at Buffalo and Tetra Therapeutics may protect against memory loss, nerve damage and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Preclinical research found that the drug — called BPN14770 — deters the effects of amyloid beta, a hallmark protein of Alzheimer’s that is toxic to nerve cells.

Recent studies find Alzheimer’s may develop without dementia in nearly 25% of healthy 80-year-old patients, suggesting the body may turn to compensatory mechanisms to maintain the nervous system.

BPN14770, under development by Tetra Therapeutics, could help activate these mechanisms that support nerve health and prevent dementia, even with the progression of Alzheimer’s.

Its benefits could also translate to Fragile X syndrome, developmental disabilities and schizophrenia, researchers say.

“Such observations imply that Alzheimer’s pathology can be tolerated by the brain to some extent due to compensatory mechanisms operating at the cellular and synaptic levels,” said Ying Xu, MD, PhD, co-lead investigator and research associate professor in the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“Our new research suggests that BPN14770 may be capable of activating multiple biological mechanisms that protect the brain from memory deficits, neuronal damage and biochemical impairments.”

The study, published on Sept. 5 in The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, was also led by James M. O’Donnell, PhD, dean and professor of the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Mark E. Gurney, PhD, chairman and chief executive officer of Tetra Therapeutics, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, collaborated on the research.

Guarding memory against toxic proteins

The research, conducted in mice, discovered that BPN14770 inhibits the activity of phosphodiesterase?4D (PDE4D), an enzyme that plays a key role in memory formation, learning, neuroinflammation and traumatic brain injury.

PDE4D lowers cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) — a messenger molecule that signals physiological changes such as cell division, change, migration and death — in the body, leading to physical alterations in the brain.

cAMP has numerous beneficial functions, including improved memory. By inhibiting PDE4D, BPN14770 increases cAMP signaling in the brain, which ultimately protects against the toxic effects of amyloid beta.

“The role of PDE4D in modulating brain pathways involved in memory formation and cognition, and the ability of our PDE4D inhibitor to selectively enhance this process, has been well studied,” said Gurney. “We are very excited by our colleagues’ findings, which now suggest a second protective mechanism of action for BPN14770 against the progressive neurological damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

“Developing effective drugs for memory deficits associated with Alzheimer’s disease has been challenging,” said O’Donnell. “BPN14770 works by a novel mechanism to increase cyclic AMP signaling in the brain, which has been shown to improve memory. The collaborative project has led to clinical trials that will begin to test its effectiveness.”

Tetra Therapeutics is conducting Phase 2 clinical trials of BPN14770 in patients with early Alzheimer’s and adults with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Results of previous Phase 1 studies in healthy elderly volunteers suggest the drug benefits working, or immediate, memory. Animal studies found that BPN14770 has the potential to promote the maturation of connections between neurons, which are impaired in patients with Fragile X syndrome, as well as protect these connections, which are lost in patients with Alzheimer’s.

“There has been enormous interest in our ongoing Phase 2 trial of BPN14770 in 255 patients with early Alzheimer’s, and we are hopeful this study will show an impact of PDE4D modulation in this disease. Topline results are expected mid-2020,” said Gurney.

Learn more: New drug may protect against memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease

 

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Electricity-free technology could help to cool buildings

The system helps cool its surroundings by absorbing heat from the air inside the box and transmitting that energy through the Earth’s atmosphere into outer space. Credit: University at Buffalo.

Engineers report advancements in radiative cooling in a new study in Nature Sustainability

Engineers have designed a new system that can help cool buildings in crowded metropolitan areas without consuming electricity, an important innovation at a time when cities are working to adapt to climate change.

The system consists of a special material — an inexpensive polymer/aluminum film — that’s installed inside a box at the bottom of a specially designed solar “shelter.” The film helps to keep its surroundings cool by absorbing heat from the air inside the box and transmitting that energy through the Earth’s atmosphere into outer space. The shelter serves a dual purpose, helping to block incoming sunlight, while also beaming thermal radiation emitted from the film into the sky.

“The polymer stays cool as it dissipates heat through thermal radiation, and can then cool down the environment,” says co-first author Lyu Zhou, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering in the University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “This is called radiative or passive cooling, and it’s very interesting because it does not consume electricity — it won’t need a battery or other electricity source to realize cooling.”

“One of the innovations of our system is the ability to purposefully direct thermal emissions toward the sky,” says lead researcher Qiaoqiang Gan, PhD, UB associate professor of electrical engineering. “Normally, thermal emissions travel in all directions. We have found a way to beam the emissions in a narrow direction. This enables the system to be more effective in urban environments, where there are tall buildings on all sides. We use low-cost, commercially available materials, and find that they perform very well.”

Taken together, the shelter-and-box system the engineers designed measures about 18 inches tall (45.72 centimeters), 10 inches wide and 10 inches long (25.4 centimeters). To cool a building, numerous units of the system would need to be installed to cover a roof.

The research will be published on Aug. 5 in Nature Sustainability. The study was an international collaboration between Gan’s group at UB, Boon Ooi’s group at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, and Zongfu Yu’s group at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Along with Zhou, co-first authors are Haomin Song, PhD, UB assistant professor of research in electrical engineering, and Jianwei Liang at KAUST. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

A system that works during the day and in crowded environments

The new passive cooling system addresses an important problem in the field: How radiative cooling can work during the day and in crowded urban areas.

“During the night, radiative cooling is easy because we don’t have solar input, so thermal emissions just go out and we realize radiative cooling easily,” Song says. “But daytime cooling is a challenge because the sun is shining. In this situation, you need to find strategies to prevent rooftops from heating up. You also need to find emissive materials that don’t absorb solar energy. Our system address these challenges.”

When placed outside during the day, the heat-emanating film and solar shelter helped reduce the temperature of a small, enclosed space by a maximum of about 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit). At night, that figure rose to about 11 degrees Celsius (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit).

How innovative architecture can drive radiative cooling

The new radiative cooling system incorporates a number of optically interesting design features.

One of the central components is the polymer/metal film, which is made from a sheet of aluminum coated with a clear polymer called polydimethylsiloxane. The aluminum reflects sunlight, while the polymer absorbs and dissipates heat from the surrounding air.

Engineers placed the material at the bottom of a foam box and erected a solar “shelter” atop the box, using a solar energy-absorbing material to construct four outward-slanting walls, along with an inverted square cone within those walls.

This architecture serves a dual purpose: First, it helps to sponge up sunlight. Second, the shape of the walls and cone direct heat emitted by the film toward the sky.

“If you look at the headlight of your car, it has a certain structure that allows it to direct the light in a certain direction,” Gan says. “We follow this kind of a design. The structure of our beam-shaping system increases our access to the sky. The ability to direct the emissions improves the performance of the system in crowded areas.”

Learn more: In the future, this electricity-free tech could help cool buildings in metro areas

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A step toward reprogramming the human genome

The left image above shows the gene FGFR1 in its natural state. The right image shows the gene when exposed to laser light, which causes the gene to activiate and deactivate. Credit: University at Buffalo.

The advancement, made possible by tiny photonic implants, could lead to new treatments for cancer, mental disorders

It seems like everything is going wireless these days. That now includes efforts to reprogram the human genome.

A new University at Buffalo-led study describes how researchers wirelessly controlled FGFR1 — a gene that plays a key role in how humans grow from embryos to adults — in lab-grown brain tissue.

The ability to manipulate the gene, the study’s authors say, could lead to new cancer treatments, and ways to prevent and treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

The work — spearheaded by UB researchers Josep M. Jornet, Michal K. Stachowiak, Yongho Bae and Ewa K. Stachowiak — was reported in the June edition of the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

It represents a step forward toward genetic manipulation technology that could upend the treatment of cancer, as well as the prevention and treatment of schizophrenia and other neurological illnesses. It centers on the creation of a new subfield of research the study’s authors are calling “optogenomics,” or controlling the human genome through laser light and nanotechnology.

“The potential of optogenomic interfaces is enormous,” says co-author Josep M. Jornet, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It could drastically reduce the need for medicinal drugs and other therapies for certain illnesses. It could also change how humans interact with machines.”

From “optogenetics” to “optogenomics”

For the past 20 years, scientists have been combining optics and genetics — the field of optogenetics — with a goal of employing light to control how cells interact with each other.

By doing this, one could potentially develop new treatments for diseases by correcting the miscommunications that occur between cells. While promising, this research does not directly address malfunctions in genetic blueprints that guide human growth and underlie many diseases.

The new research begins to tackle this issue because FGFR1 — it stands for Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptor 1 — holds sway over roughly 4,500 other genes, about one-fifth of the human genome, as estimated by the Human Genome Project, says study co-author Michal K. Stachowiak.

“In some respects, it’s like a boss gene,” says Stachowiak, PhD, professor in the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. “By controlling FGFR1, one can theoretically prevent widespread gene dysregulations in schizophrenia or in breast cancer and other types of cancer.”

Light-activated toggle switches

The research team was able to manipulate FGFR1 by creating tiny photonic brain implants. These wireless devices include nano-lasers and nano-antennas and, in the future, nano-detectors.

Researchers inserted the implants into the brain tissue, which was grown from induced pluripotent stem cells and enhanced with light-activated molecular toggle switches. They then triggered different laser lights — common blue laser, red laser and far-red laser — onto the tissue.

The interaction allowed researchers to activate and deactivate FGFR1 and its associated cellular functions — essentially hacking the gene. The work may eventually enable doctors to manipulate patients’ genomic structure, providing a way to prevent and correct gene abnormalities, says Stachowiak, who also holds an appointment in UB’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint program between the Jacobs School and UB’s engineering school.

Next steps

The development is far from entering the doctor’s office or hospital, but the research team is excited about next steps, which include testing in 3D “mini-brains” and cancerous tissue.

Learn more: Researchers wirelessly hack ‘boss’ gene, a step toward reprogramming the human genome

 

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Starving drug-resistant fungal infections to death

Mira Edgerton, DDS, PhD, co-lead investigator of the study and research professor in the Department of Oral Biology at the UB School of Dental Medicine. Photo: Douglas Levere

Researchers repurpose drug to deny drug-resistant fungus of iron, an element crucial to its survival

How do you fight a fungal infection that is becoming increasingly resistant to medicine? By starving it, found a team of University at Buffalo and Temple University researchers.

To treat Candida albicans, a common yeast that can cause illness in those with weakened immune systems, researchers limited the fungus’ access to iron, an element crucial to the organism’s survival.

“In the absence of novel drug candidates, drug repurposing aimed at using existing drugs to treat diseases is a promising strategy.”
Mira Edgerton, research professor in the Department of Oral Biology at the UB School of Dental Medicine

They did so by using deferasirox, a medication used to treat blood disorders. Tested in mice, the results were promising: investigators decreased iron levels in saliva by four times, which altered the expression of more than 100 genes by the fungus, diminished its ability to infect oral mucosal tissue and caused a two-fold reduction in the organism’s survival rate.

“In the absence of novel drug candidates, drug repurposing aimed at using existing drugs to treat diseases is a promising strategy,” says Mira Edgerton, DDS, PhD, co-lead investigator of the study and research professor in the Department of Oral Biology at the UB School of Dental Medicine.

Edgerton, along with Sumant Puri, PhD, co-lead investigator and assistant professor in the Kornberg School of Dentistry at Temple University, published the study in March in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Currently, only three major classes of clinical antifungal drugs exist. However, fungal drug resistance has steadily increased and no new classes of antifungals have emerged in decades, says Edgerton.

Candida albicans, a fungus among the group building resistance, is the agent behind a number of infections. They include oral thrush, a yeast infection in the mouth identified by a white film that coats the tongue and throat, causing painful swallowing; and denture-related stomatitis, a fungal infection that affects nearly two-thirds of U.S. denture wearers that causes inflammation, redness and swelling in the mouth.

The yeast is also the fourth leading cause of hospital-acquired bloodstream infections, which often have high mortality rates, says Edgerton.

Candida albicans is the most abundant fungus in the oral microbiome and relies heavily on saliva as a source for essential elements. Iron, the second most abundant metal in saliva, is a critical nutrient used by the fungus in several cellular processes, including energy production and DNA repair.

In mice, the group added deferasirox to drinking water to lower iron levels in saliva and reduce the availability of iron needed to sustain an infection.

The investigators found that Candida albicans in the mice who received the treatment were less likely to survive attacks by the immune system, subsisting at a 12 percent survival rate compared to a 25 percent survival rate in mice who did not receive the treatment.

The therapy also altered the expression of 106 genes by the fungus, a quarter of which were involved in the regulation of iron metabolism, directly regulated by iron or had iron-related functions. The study is the first report of iron starvation affecting gene expression of Candida albicans in real time during live infection, says Puri.

Other research has shown that treatment with deferasirox does not result in iron deficiency in adults with normal iron levels, forming the potential for preventative treatment for those who are also vulnerable to mucosal infections, says Puri.

Learn more: Drug-resistant infections: If you can’t beat ‘em, starve ‘em, scientists find

 

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