The Beauty of Smart Nanomaterials – Molecularly Imprinted Polymers

Is it possible to save the environment and improve lives with something so small you cannot even see? Well apparently it is and we can even save money and, more importantly, save time while doing it. But let’s start from the beginning…

In 1931 researchers started to work on self- assembling materials which can be prepared in various shapes and sizes. These materials were called molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) and have been successfully created and developed against targets like peptides, proteins and other macromolecular structures, as well as smaller chemical entities such as drugs, their metabolites, pollutants, explosives, etc. All the possibilities make MIPs perfect for various applications such as sorbents in wastewater treatment, diagnostics or catalysis.

How do we make them? It is easy and resembles playing with Play-Doh. Imagine taking different colours of Play-Doh (monomers) and assembling them around your chosen shape (analyte/target). After some time the Play-Doh will get rigid enough for you to remove your shape, having a final cavity complementary to the imprinted template. In case of MIPs, the monomers possess affinity toward different parts of the analyte so later they can be used for catching the imprinted molecule. Additionally the MIPs can be produced in nano-size.

The robust nature of MIP nanoparticles makes them ideal reagents for a wide range of applications including point-of-care diagnostics and in field based testing. They can withstand harsh environments, such as extremes of pH and temperature, seawater and can even function in organic solvents.

The new solid-phase manufacturing approach uses immobilised target molecules at the surface of a solid support. At the surface of this support, monomers (small parts of Play-Doh) are polymerised (connected to each other) into polymer nanoparticles which are reusable. In addition to producing high- performance binders, this synthetic approach is suitable for scale-up and automation making it very attractive for the commercial use.

A newly released research successfully demonstrated that polymer nanoparticles produced by the molecular imprinting technique can bind to the target molecule with the same or higher affinity and specificity than widely used commercially available antibodies and against challenging targets. Additionally, their ease of manufacture, short lead time, high affinity and the lack of requirement for cold chain logistics make them an attractive alternative to traditional antibodies for use in immunoassays and any other applications. Furthermore, the assays possessed much higher stability, which overall is a very strong endorsement for considering industrial application of MIP nanoparticles in diagnostic platforms.

Now just imagine how easy and fast is to produce MIPs for ally kinds of chemicals contaminating our air and water or for specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells. How easy it can be to eliminate pollution and diagnose cancer or other diseases? So now taking into account all the pros of MIPs we can now start to implement them into new fields where they can replace old technologies and this is happening now…

About the Author

Joanna CzulakJoanna Czulak is currently working as a scientist for MIP diagnostics Ltd – a spin out company from the University of Leicester. She has a solid background in polymers and dispersion systems, with both Master and PhD degrees in this field, in addition to three years of university teaching experience in physical chemistry of polymers and chemistry of macromolecules at Wroclaw University of Technology (Poland). During her academic studies, she had a placement at the Ecole des Mines d’Ale’s (France) developing spherical resins and ionic liquids with catalytic activity, whilst later during her PhD she spent two years working as a researcher at the University of Leicester. There the work focussed mainly on the design of polymeric nanomaterials and its application on assays and separations. Joanna’s interests are focused mainly on the development of molecularly imprinted polymers and their practical applications in catalysis, sorbents and assays.

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