College of LAS « Illinois

Cover Story

A Race to the Bottom

Small is beautiful when fighting disease.


When the 17th-century scientist Robert Hooke first peered through his microscope at a thin slice of cork, he saw microscopic “boxes,” which to him resembled the rooms, or cells, where monks prayed. So he dubbed these structures “cells”—a word that has carried down to us.

Today, scientists can gaze far beyond the cells that Hooke studied and sketched; they can peer down to the mysterious, ultra-small world of the nano. Scientists are even discovering how to manipulate the basic building blocks of matter, creating nano machines so tiny that they can actually enter into the cells that Hooke was amazed to see.

Nanotechnology deals with molecular machines less than 100 nanometers in size—roughly 100 to 10,000 times smaller than human cells. It has all types of applications, but some of the most intriguing nano projects target human health, as sensors the size of biological molecules may someday roam through blood samples scouting for cancer cells.

The birth of nanotechnology is often traced back to physicist Richard Feynman’s landmark 1959 talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Today, nano researchers at Illinois and around the world are all headed in the same direction—to “the bottom,” the smallest of the small.

The following stories provide a peek at the kind of nanotechnology work that three LAS researchers are doing on serious health issues, ranging from brain tumors and prostate cancer to pharmaceutical breakthroughs. Their work is distinct, but it shares a common goal: They are all getting to the bottom of things—both literally and figuratively. They’re working at the smallest level of matter, and they’re also getting to the bottom of the mysteries behind some of the most persistent and dangerous diseases we face today.

By Doug Peterson
Summer 2012