When graphene was first introduced, it seemed everyone wanted to apply it to electronics, especially after carbon nanotubes were turning into such a disappointment in the field. But graphene has a huge strike against it in electronics: it lacks a band gap. So everyone, including major electronics players like IBM and Samsung, looked for ways to give graphene a band gap.
While researchers were hard at work wrestling graphene into a role it didn’t seem to want to play, others were looking at what it might like to do. This led to work that looked at using graphene for applications ranging from rustproofing to photovoltaics.
Now the biomedical field is increasingly looking at graphene as a material for advancing therapeutics and diagnostics where its capabilities might be ideally suited. An article in the journal Advanced Materials ("New Horizons for Diagnostics and Therapeutic Applications of Graphene and Graphene Oxide") outlines some of the ways that graphene and its oxide are promising improved diagnostics and therapeutics for maladies ranging from Alzheimer’s to cancer.
Of course, some of the applications for graphene in the biomedical field are within areas that are at least tangential to those already mentioned, like electronic devices and transparent conductors. But graphene is also being looked at for drug and gene delivery applications, photo-therapy of cancer and biosensors. In particular, researchers have been experimenting with combining graphene with near-Infrared (NIR) phototherapy and imaging. There has been some progress in using graphene-enabled NIR photothermal therapy for cancer and Alzheimer's disease (AD).
While both pure graphene and graphene oxide have exhibited some toxicity to cell and animals, it has been found that coating the graphene with a biocompatible polymer results in no detectable toxicity in both cellular and animal testing.
Graphene’s application to this field is still in its infancy, however, early testing has shown promise that it could play an important role in future disease diagnostics and treatment.
Image: Luis E. F. Foa Torres
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.