Rachel Blau’s postdoctoral research at the Department of NanoEngineering at the University of California, San Diego arises out of recent developments, such as health monitors and robotic surgery, that have created a need for technologies that transmit the sense of touch. Up till now, motors and other mechanical actuators have been used, but they are incapable of recapitulating the feeling of biological structures. Instead, Dr. Blau minimizes actuators to the nano range, to get control over the molecular structures. She designs and synthesizes stimuli-responsive conductive polymers and elastomers, organic materials that can transmit realistic tactile cues to give the actual feel of the biological milieu. They could potentially be used for medical training, remote patient visits, physical therapy, robotic-assisted surgery, and prosthesis design.
Dr. Blau is building on the success of smart polymeric probes that she designed and synthesized during her PhD in Medical Sciences at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University. These nanoparticles, when stimulated by cathepsins, enzymes that are highly activated in cancer cells, were able to differentiate between the tumor and its normal surroundings during image-guided surgery. A group of mice that underwent surgery under the guidance of the nanoprobe survived longer in comparison with control groups, due to the probe’s ability to contribute to complete excision of the tumor. Dr. Blau and the colleagues she worked with on this research have since filed a patent on their polymeric systems.