Trends with Graphene Young Researchers (II)

Interview with Artur Pinto (Porto University, Portugal)

Welcome back to this issue of my Graphene newsletter. As I had already announced in previous issues, we continue with the series of interviews to young researchers who have their research field around Graphene. For several years we have been organizing conferences after I left research and this has allowed me to meet many people from many countries. I met many of them while they were PhD Students and now they are Doctors and many of them even have their own research group. I wanted to focus on those young researchers who recently finished their doctoral thesis and are currently doing a PostDoctoral or with a contract in a University / Research Center.

I would like to continue this series of interviews with Artur M. Pinto (Portugal). I met Artur a long time ago, when Artur was a PhD student (probably during a NanoPT Conference (Nanotechnology in Portugal), and I have met him in several conferences. Thank you very much Artur for lending me part of your time.

1. Hello Artur, tell us how graphene came to your life.
In 2009 I graduated with a MSc in Pharmaceutical Sciences. During my degree, I had Dr. Bruno Sarmento as a professor, who brought my attention to the field of research, in which I became interested since then. Afterwards, I got the opportunity to take a research grant at Laboratory for Process Engineering, Environment, Biotechnology and Energy – Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto (LEPABE-FEUP) to work on polymer materials and graphene was a very hot topic at the moment. My supervisor, prof. Fernão Magalhães proposed me to test it as a nanofiller as a side track to my work plan. The results were promising and we managed to publish two research articles on the field. Then I enrolled in the Doctoral Program in Biomedical Engineering at FEUP. During the classes I met prof. Inês Gonçalves, from the National Institute of Biomedical Engineering - Institute for Research and Innovation in Health, University of Porto (INEB-i3S), to whom I proposed to jointly perform experiments on graphene-based materials (GBM) biocompatibility, a subject where very little was known back then. We obtained results that allowed us to achieve a publication and then a successful application for a PhD grant from the Foundation of Science and Technology for a 4-year period to develop my studies. From then I continued studying GBM and their polymer composites biological interactions and applications, from antibacterial properties to drug delivery and cancer therapy.

Graphene-based materials for drug delivery and phototherapy in LEPABE-FEUP/i3S Graphene Team

2. What role does graphene play in your research at the present time?
Presently I am the principle investigator of a collaborative project between FEUP and INEB-i3S, whose goal is using GBM to treat chronic skin disease and cancer. We focus in producing nanometric, biocompatible GBM and modifying them to increase, for example, water stability, biointeractions, skin penetration, photoabsorption, and anti-cancer effect. Also, we have a collaboration with prof. Susana Santos, from i3S, with the goal of exploring GBM effects in the immune system. Together with prof. Bruno Sarmento, also from i3S, we study pharmaceutical formulations containing GBM. Another field where we focus, in collaboration with prof. Inês Gonçalves, is on studying GBM antibacterial properties, as colloids, coatings, films or included in polymer composites.
Furthermore, we have been studying graphene aerogels for biological applications together with Dr. Marcus Worsley from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (US). Another successful collaboration that we have established is with prof. Miguel Castilho, from University Medical Center Utrecht and Eindhoven University of Technology, which focus on 3D printing of polymeric scaffolds containing GBM for tissue regeneration.

Different research interests in graphene-based materials in LEPABE-FEUP/i3S Graphene Team

3. Currently research groups are focusing mainly on obtaining Graphene in large quantities at low cost. Which country do you think will have more options to get it?
It took decades to firstly isolate a stable single layer of graphene and its achievement was so remarkable due to graphene’s outstanding properties that the researchers that have usefully performed it were awarded the Nobel prize. However, that was achieved by using scotch tape, which is far from being a scalable production method. When we consider applications, for example in optics or electronics, it’s usually desirable that we produce single layer graphene sheets with large lateral dimensions. For that methods as chemical vapor deposition are often used, which still present limitations in scalability. In that field we see technological companies, like Samsung, achieving remarkable progresses.

In our lab we focus on top-down production methods, oxidizing graphite using the modified Hummers method, exfoliating and breaking down its lateral size by sonication. Regarding biological applications, it is usually favorable to use materials in the nanometric lateral scale (below 100 nm), due to their increased stability in biological conditions, increased biological interactions and improved excretion from the body. However, such materials are not commercially available, despite several companies labeling their products as such. After testing several products and always being disappointed, we have decided to implement our own system from scratch to scale up nanographene production, being now able to produce liters of nanographene oxide and reduced nanographene oxide (water stable) at very high concentrations (1-10 mg/mL) in a single batch. Nanographene oxide dispersions have proved to be highly-water stable, presenting a shelf-life of over 6 months, which have driven us to fill a patent in order to move towards commercialization.

High-yield production of biocompatible nanographene-based materials in LEPABE-FEUP/i3S Graphene Team

4. Carbon nanotubes appeared a few years ago and it gave the impression that thanks to the properties they had, great challenges could be achieved with them. However, they went down in history as soon as graphene appeared. What future do you see for Graphene?
In our field of study, one of the main problems regarding carbon nanotubes use is their toxicity. When we consider GBM, most of such concerns seem not to be transposable, due to GBM being less rigid than the carbon nanotubes, which are considered carcinogenic, and GBM production being achievable without the use of metals, which can cause toxicity. Furthermore, some studies even point out that graphene oxide can be degraded by a human enzyme released by immune system cells. Nonetheless, all care should be taken and comprehensive toxicological studies performed before any use of GBM for medical applications. Another aspect that should be considered are environmental risks of using GBM. Several strategies can be used to increase GBM biocompatibility, such as surface modification by oxidation or functionalization with suitable chemical groups or polymers. The use of green methods for GBM production is also a very relevant question, together with assuring removal of any toxic substances resultant from production processes.

Finally, standardization is crucial to create confidence on GBM products, as often they can be all together termed as graphene, while there are so many different types of GBM.

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5. Throughout all these years of research we have coincided in several graphene conferences. Is there any talk that has been etched in your memory? I personally remember one, unrelated to Graphene, in 2004 from Dr Shinji Matsui University of Hyogo (Japan), who presented us the arm of a future nanorobot, fully functional made from nanotubes where the fingers openned and closed thanks to electrostatic charges.
A talk delivered by prof. António Castro Neto comes to my memory. In that talk he stated the importance of graphene standardization, revealing shocking facts about the graphene market. The analysis revealed that the great majority of the materials commercialized as graphene or as graphene-containing in fact were basically graphite.

From then I started focusing on GBM properties optimization and looking deeply into commercial products that could be used for biomedical applications, such as nanographene oxide or reduced nanographene oxide (below 100 nm length) and so far couldn’t find any with desirable features. That’s why we developed our own single layer nanosized materials as mentioned before.


6. How has the COVID19 pandemic affected the day-to-day running of your research?
Covid19 has prevented us from performing practical work for a few months and even now we have restrictions to the use of several facilities and services. Even though we have a brave team of which I am proud, that kept working hard from home or in the laboratory whenever possible to achieve our goals. I would like to acknowledge the researchers and students working with us regarding that. I hope that soon group immunity is achieved and the world goes back to normality, and perhaps the productivity lost during this year will be surpassed by the gains in terms of remote work skills and methods developed.


7. I seem to remember that you have done research in Portugal and the Netherlands, is it correct? Can you tell us what the differences are between the two countries in the area of research?
In the Netherlands I’ve been working at the Chemical Engineering Department of the Eindhoven University of Technology which is a highly organized institution with all the necessary facilities, implemented procedures, academic and industrial collaborations, and appropriate funding to conduct research on the field. The main differences I can point out are the lower availability of industrial partners to establish collaborations, and the lower accessibility to funding to conduct research in Portugal. Despite that, we have all the adequate facilities to carry out our research work and we always come up with creative solutions to surpass any limitations, establishing international collaborations and presenting our work with the highest standards in international conferences and high impact journals.

To finish, I would like to thank prof. Bruno Sarmento for guiding me on how to start my career in science by the last year of my MSc degree. Also, to acknowledge the constant support that prof. Fernão Magalhães have given me since my first steps as a researcher until now. It’s thanks to him that I came across graphene and that I had all the conditions to develop my work on the field and progress in my career. I should also thank all the other researchers that I collaborated or still collaborate with, that I won’t have space to list, because fortunately I counted with numerous help, but everyone knows their contribution and I won’t surely forget it. A final remark to thank my family and friends for the constant support which pushes me forward every day.

Thank you, Jose, for giving me the opportunity to talk about graphene and the work developed at our laboratory, and all the readers for your interest. I wish everyone the best success and good health. Everything is going to be fine soon!

Acknowledgements: Thank you very much Artur for giving me the opportunity to interview you. I hope this interview will be to the liking of my readers. Take care.

Biography:

Artur M. Pinto graduated in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Advanced Institute of Health Sciences (PT), obtaining his PhD (cum laude) in Biomedical Engineering from Faculty of Engineering (FEUP), University of Porto (PT). His PhD work was carried out at LEPABE-FEUP, INEB-i3S, and University of Washington - Bioengineering Department - Buddy Ratner's Lab (USA). The research focus was on production and characterization of graphene-based materials and their polymer composites, and study of the interaction between biomaterials and biological components. After his graduation, Artur has been appointed as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Materials and Interface Chemistry Lab (SMG) - Eindhoven University of Technology (NL), where he developed research work on graphene-based materials for electronic and biomedical applications, namely 3D printing of polymeric implants. Also, he was a teaching assistant at the Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Department (Nanotechnology course). Following his Post-doc, Artur has been appointed as Researcher at INEB-i3S, being Principal Investigator of the Foundation for Science and Technology R&D project "NovaDerma", whose work plan comprises the development of innovative biomaterials/drugs conjugates to be integrated in pharmaceutical formulations for the treatment of skin diseases, as basal cell carcinoma, psoriasis, vitiligo, and atopic dermatitis. Meanwhile, he has been awarded a long-term Researcher position at LEPABE-FEUP, on the competitive national call CEEC-IND, carrying out his research activities on both institutions. Artur has been supervising more than 20 Post-docs, PhD, MSc students and research fellows working on the projects he has been involved in. His work has been cited more than 1000 times and has an h and i10 index of 11, it has been presented in over 60 international conferences, including invited talks, and workshops. During his career, Artur has been involved in several international collaborative research projects, working directly with partners from institutions in countries such as the US, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland. Also, he has received the Julia Polak European Research Award in recognition of the work developed on the field, by the European Society for Biomaterials. Recently, he has received the Publons Top Reviewer award, for his track of over 100 reviews and edits performed. Also, he has been performing the evaluation of international research projects in his field of work. Finally, he has co-written the chapter "Carbon Biomaterials" for the just-released 4th edition of the world-renowned book “Biomaterials Science: An Introduction to Materials in Medicine”.


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