In June 2021, the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN) and the NRC's Nanotechnology Research Centre co-hosted a virtual workshop, which featured research presentations from both organizations, as well as networking sessions and pitches. The workshop forged partnerships between the 2 groups, and following that, a call for proposals was announced. Nine research projects were selected to receive funding under the program.
Overview of the program
The Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN)–NRC Nanotechnology Research Centre Joint Seed Funding program is a competitive program designed to foster interdisciplinary research between partners for high-risk, high reward, blue-sky discoveries typically not supported by traditional granting agencies. The targeted areas of research for this program are nanomaterials and nano-enabled sensors.
3D Imaging and Machine Learning for Nanoplastic Identification and Classification
NRC project lead: Dr. Misa Hayashida, Nanotechnology Research Centre
University of Waterloo project lead: Dr. Boxin Zhao and Dr. Qinqin Zhu
Project summary: The ubiquity and longevity of plastics has led to plastic pollution becoming a significant global issue. Of particular concern are microplastics and nanoplastics, which are much smaller than bulk plastics and therefore more capable of carrying other contaminants and entering the food chain. Identifying and classifying plastic particles is an important step towards understanding their spread and how to remove them, but this is particularly challenging for nanoplastics due to their extremely small size. To address this challenge, the proposed research has the long-term goal of combining electron tomography (a technique that can provide 3D images on the nanoscale) and machine learning to develop a strategy to rapidly and consistently identify and classify nanoplastics. In the shorter term, the goal for the first year is to differentiate between nanoplastic particles and nanoparticles of inorganic photocatalyst, Titanium dioxide.
Aptamers for Cluster of Differentiation 81 (CD81) in Exosome Biology
NRC project lead: Dr. Marianna Kulka, Nanotechnology Research Centre
University of Waterloo project lead: Dr. Juewen Liu
Project summary: Exosomes are cell-derived nanovesicles that exist in almost all bodily fluids, such as blood, urine, cerebrospinal fluid, saliva and breast milk. Exosomes encapsulate regulatory nucleic acids and proteins, and are considered important biomarkers of cancer and other diseases. A key challenge in the exosome field is adequate separation and enrichment, which is difficult due to their extremely small size. Although commercial kits based on antibodies are available for this purpose, those kits are very expensive, the capacity for separation is very low and they only enrich a small subset of exosomes. In this project, we will try to capture exosomes using DNA which, like antibodies, can stick to exosomes. This collaborative project will provide very useful reagents for later work such as cancer detection and drug delivery.
Holders for Electron Microscope Applications
NRC project leads: Mark Salomons and Dr. Michael Fleischauer, Nanotechnology Research Centre
University of Waterloo project lead: Dr. German Sciaini
Project summary: This project combines teams in a joint effort to develop and implement a state-of-the-art cathodoluminescence (CL) holder for the characterization of light emitting nanomaterials and nanostructures with atomic spatial resolution. German Sciaini's team will produce a CL-holder to suit the high-resolution electron microscopes of the NRC's Nanotechnology Research Centre. Mark Salomons' group will carry out the automation necessary to correlate sample position with collected CL signals. Michael Fleischauer's expertise in nanomaterial characterization will be critical to data interpretation as well as to assist other interested user groups at the University of Alberta, namely Al Meldrum (Physics) and Jon Veinot (Chemistry). This seed funding will enable joint grant applications, the generation of intellectual property, a new product offering and job creation via the start-up that is about to branch off from the University of Waterloo's electron microscopy technology innovations.
Low-Power Field-Effect Transistor-Based Sensors
NRC project lead: Dr. Adam Bergren, Nanotechnology Research Centre
University of Waterloo project lead: Professor Dr. Yimin Wu
Project summary: A rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) from 300 parts per million (ppm) in 1950 to 420 ppm in 2021 in the atmosphere, largely produced by fossil fuel emissions, has contributed to climate change. While Canada has set a target to net-zero carbon emission by 2050, in the interim, the health and energy crises resulting from climate change have deeply threatened human security. To address this climate change challenge, the team will develop field-effect transistor-based sensor arrays as low-power measurement systems that can take advantage of the Internet of Things to monitor CO2 emissions remotely. This in-situ low-cost medium precision greenhouse gas (GHG) sensor technology can inform mitigation actions and evaluate effectiveness in a way that enables consistent application across Canada. This sensor network can monitor CO2 emissions in cities, industries, farms and communities to provide atmospheric monitoring and modelling, which can identify emission reduction opportunities by source type and track changes in emissions.
Multiplex Point of Care Testing
NRC project lead: Dr. Abebaw Jemere, Nanotechnology Research Centre
University of Waterloo project lead: Dr. Shirley Tang
Project summary: The rising prevalence of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases continues to cast shadows on global health. Point-of-care testing (POCT) of biomarkers is instrumental to effective chronic disease management that overcomes the limitation of traditional laboratory tests including long turnaround time, availability and high cost. Current POCT sensors involve perishable biological materials as the target recognition component, which restrains the transportation and storage condition for use in low-resource settings. The team will develop novel Molecularly Imprinted Polymer (MIP) and nanofilm enabled multiplexed sensors on an electrochemical platform for POCT. These high-performance systems are free of biological components. The electrochemical sensors afford small device size, fast response and high sensitivity, thus are ideal for implementing in a test strip format and operated using a smartphone-sized reader.
Nano-cantilever Biogenic-amine Sensors
NRC project lead: Dr. Kenneth Bosnick, Nanotechnology Research Centre
University of Waterloo project leads: Dr. Kevin Mussleman and Dr. Mustafa Yavuz
Project summary: Over half the food produced in Canada is wasted. In addition to significant economic and social implications, this results in ~56.5 megatonnes/year of greenhouse gas emissions. Of the carbon footprint associated with global food waste, over 20% is from meat waste. When meat protein decomposes it releases biogenic amines (e.g., cadaverine), which can be toxic to humans and can react to form carcinogenic compounds. Expertise will be combined to fabricate nano-cantilever inertial sensors for rapid, ultra-sensitive and selective detection of biogenic amines. Nano-cantilevers made from different oxides will be fabricated in Waterloo and tested with common analytes (University of Waterloo) and model biogenic-amine test gases (NRC). A hand-held device for early detection of these volatile amines in meat processing facilities would enable the mitigation of meat spoilage to reduce food waste and emissions and improve food safety.
Printed 2D Nanomaterials for Flexible, Near-Infrared Sensors
NRC project lead: Dr. Neil Graddage, Advanced Electronics and Photonics Research Centre
University of Waterloo project lead: Dr. Michael Pope
Project summary: The aim of this project is to develop printable dispersions of two-dimensional materials in order to fabricate sensors that are sensitive to near-infrared (NIR) light. Two-dimensional materials offer unique optical and electronics properties that can be used in high-performance sensors and can be dispersed in solvents, which enables the use of printing techniques for device fabrication. Printing is a unique method for electronics fabrication because it allows for low-cost device fabrication onto any substrate. As a result, printed devices can be flexible and lightweight, ideal for conformable, wearable electronics. This combination of NIR sensitivity and flexible form factor will enable new applications, such as wearable blood oximeters for health monitoring.
Rapid and Portable Multiplex Device
NRC project lead: Dr. Nikola Pekas, Nanotechnology Research Centre
University of Waterloo project lead: Dr. Emmanuel Ho
Project summary: There can be confusion in the differentiation between the symptoms of COVID-19, the seasonal flu and the common cold. Patients that exhibit sore throat, runny nose or cough are treated as a potential case of COVID-19. As a result, there is an urgent need for an easy, sensitive, accurate and rapid method to differentiate COVID-19 from other viruses that exhibit similar symptoms. In this project, we propose to develop a rapid (~20 mins), portable test kit using the advanced technology of recombinase polymerase amplification (RPA) coupled with gold nanoparticles in a microfluidic device to differentiate between COVID-19, the common cold and the seasonal flu. This innovative detection device would be very handy in schools, point-of-care, developing countries and remote communities since it is fast, inexpensive and does not require trained personnel to perform the detection test.
NRC project leads: Dr. Marianna Kulka, Nanotechnology Research Centre and Dr. Yimei Jia, Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre
University of Waterloo project lead: Dr. Pu Chen
Project summary: The most efficient antigen-presenting cells are mature, immunologically competent dendritic cells (DCs), which serve as potent immune sensors of innate activation signals of antigen that are necessary for the activation and effective priming of antigen specific T cells. The lack of efficient antigen loading and low maturation of DCs are the main reasons for activation failure in T cells and inducing the immune system to fight against infections. To tackle this, we propose a theranostic nanomedicine technology platform that enables efficient transfection of DCs with self-amplifying mRNAs via binding of engineered biomaterials to receptor DEC-205. Our proposed approach has several advantages over existing strategies: (1) specifically targeting immature DCs to induce potent T cell responses, (2) introducing self-amplified mRNA to enhance and/or prolong antigen expression, (3) deploying novel lipid library to improve transfection efficiency.