We are working on design and synthesis of chelate compounds and nanoparticles for biomedical applications. MRI contrast agents, in vitro diagnosis, drug delivery, cancer diagnosis and treatment, and nano-bio interactions are our research subjects.
Research overview

The Gao group is focused on the interface between nanotechnology and biotechnology/medicine. The advances in nanobiotechnology require the deep understanding of physics, chemistry, biology and medicine in nanoscale. This interdisciplinary research field has great potential for early detection and analysis, accurate imaging and diagnosis, and disease treatment and management.

MRI contrast agents

MRI has a critically important role in molecular imaging and clinical diagnosis. Approximately 35% of clinical MR scans need contrast agents to improve their sensitivity and diagnostic accuracy. Superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles have been developed as T2-negative contrast agents for MRI in clinical use but they exhibit relatively low relaxivity and poor sensitivity. Most gadolinium chelates molecular-based contrast agents are extracellular-fluid markers with low selectivity and tend to be rapidly excreted via the renal clearance pathway. The aim in our group is to develop high-performance MRI contrast agents to improve the sensitivity, spatial resolution, and accuracy in molecular imaging and diagnostic analysis. We developed octapod iron oxide nanoparticles as high-performance T2 contrast agents, iron oxide nanoplates as T1 contrast agents for highly efficient magnetic resonance angiography, and T1-T2 dual-modal contrast agents to improve the accuracy of cancer imaging and diagnosis.

In vitro diagnosis and analysis

Interest has grown in the use of nanomaterials (e.g., magnetic, semiconductor, and noble metal) as probes for bioanalysis and diagnosis, particularly in vitro diagnostics (IVD). With the advantages of high volume/surface ratio, surface tailorability, multifunctionality, and intrinsic properties, nanoprobes have tremendous applications in the areas of biomarker discovery and analysis (e.g., DNA/RNA, enzymes, peptides), diagnostics of infectious diseases (e.g., bacteria an virus), and cancer detection. The distinguishing features of nanoprobes for in vitro use, such as harmlessness, ultrasensitivity, multiplicity, and point-of-care use, can bring a bright future of nanodiagnosis.

Drug delivery

Chemotherapy is the dominant treatment modality for cancer, yet it is limited by poor biodistribution and severe side effects in patients. The rising of nanotechnology has provided a versatile platform for cancer treatment. Because of their large surface-to-volume ratio, high flexibility for surface tailoring, and excellent capacity for multifunction, nanoparticles have recently emerged as a promising carrier for delivery of multiple drugs (e.g., DOX, PTX, ATO, and CPT) with many advantages including improved drug solubility, controllable release of drugs, and reduced systemic toxicity, which provides a potential solution for the problems of conventional therapy. The goal is to develop new drug delivery systems incorporating cancer diagnosis, real-time drug release monitoring, and high therapeutic efficiency, which can open up new venues in cancer treatment and management.

Nano-bio interactions

Autophagy plays a key role in human health and disease, especially in cancer and neurodegeneration. Many autophagy regulators are developed for therapy. Diverse nanomaterials have been reported to induce autophagy. However, the underlying mechanisms and universal rules remain unclear. Our current emphasis is to investigate the relationship between physicochemical properties (e.g., size, charge, morphology, surface modification, and dispersity) of nanoparticles and the cell autophagic effects.

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