Featured scientist: Prof. Maurizio Prato (Università degli Studi di Trieste, Italy).

Prof Maurizio Prato
Prof Maurizio Prato

A specialist in functionalizing carbon nanomaterials, Professor Maurizio Prato has been working on this subject for a quarter of a century. In his research group at the University of Trieste (Italy), he has developed methods to add organic molecules to the surface of fullerenes, carbon nanotubes and graphene. By so doing, Prato contributed to diversify the range of properties and functions of these nanomaterials and, consequently, their applications, especially in the field of nanomedicine.

The work he developed yielded many high-impact publications. According to Google Scholar, the Italian scientist has over 67,700 citations (being more than 3,800 in only one article) and owns a h-index of 119.

From 1983 to 1992, Prato was an Assistant Professor at the University of Padova (Italy). He then joined the University of Trieste as an Associate Professor. He became Full Professor in 2000. Since 2015, he also works at the Center for Cooperative Research in Biomaterials (CICbiomaGUNE), located in San Sebastian (Spain). Professor Prato leads the Carbon Nanotechnology Group in Trieste and the Bionanotechnology Group in San Sebastian. Throughout his career, he spent terms as a visiting researcher/ professor at Yale University and University of California, Santa Barbara (United States), Ecole Normale Superieure (France) and University of Namur (Belgium).

This prominent Italian scientist will be in September in Balneario Camboriu, participating in the XVIII B-MRS Meeting, where he will give a plenary lecture. He will speak about some of his more instigating recent research, such as the use of functionalized carbon nanomaterials for neuron growth and interneuronal communication, and the application of carbon nanotubes to the generation of hydrogen – a source of clean energy.

See our mini interview with Professor Maurizio Prato.

B-MRS Newsletter: – We´d like to know more about your scientific work. Please choose two papers of your own, briefly describe them, and share the references.

Among others, we work on two relevant problems: one is related to the recovery of motility after a spinal cord injury, the second deals with the so-called “artificial photosynthesis”.

Cure of spinal cord injury using carbon nanotubes. In the recent past, our group has demonstrated the incredible potential of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in the field of artificial neural networks and nerve tissue regeneration. CNTs can provide advanced scaffolds, owing to their known electrifying effect on neurons, possessing the structural and functional fitness to suit the stringent requirements for growing healthy networks of cardiomyocytes and neurons. It is not just a matter of providing an appropriate substrate for cell growth, it has actually emerged that CNTs have an electrifying effect on cells. In other words, specialized cells grown in contact with CNTs appear to be electrically more active. Recently, the ability of CNT substrates to impact on a central nervous system (CNS) tissue has been tested by co-culturing entire slices of spinal cord, used as ex-vivo models. These exciting results show that 3D scaffolds of CNT provide an efficient three-dimensional interface with the biological tissue and its injuries forin vivo insertion and testing.

Ref: S. Usmani, E. R. Aurand, M. Medelin, A. Fabbro, D. Scaini, J. Laishram, F. B. Rosselli, A. Ansuini, D. Zoccolan, M. Scarselli, M. De Crescenzi, S. Bosi, M. Prato, L. Ballerini. 3D meshes of carbon nanotubes guide functional reconnection of segregated spinal explants. Science Advances, 2, e1600087 (2016)

Artificial Photosynthesis: Energy is another field that has enjoyed great benefit from CNTs. These carbon nanostructures have been combined with inorganic catalysts, and especially metal oxides (MOx) and nanoparticles (NP), in a countless number of nanocomposites and hybrids. Energy is an emerging field of research, gaining a strong momentum, in parallel with the general interest in new and efficient processes that promise to set our society free from the unsustainable thirst of fossil fuels. An exciting perspective in energy research is represented by the fascinating possibility to carry out artificial photosynthesis. At the heart of the natural phenomenon lies the energetically very demanding water oxidation process, carried out by a metal-oxygen cluster with four manganese atoms and one calcium atom, Mn4Ca. We used a nanocatalyst based on the combination of a Ru polyoxometalate (Ru4POM) and functionalized CNTs to modify an oxygen evolving anode. More recently, we translated this concept to a self-assembled system, based on perylene bisimide/Ru4POM complex, to fabricate a photoactive framework around the catalytic center to transfer electrons and slow down recombination

Ref: Bonchio, M.; Syrgiannis, Z.; Burian, M.; Marino, N.; Pizzolato, E.; Dirian, K.; Rigodanza, F.; Volpato, G. A.; La Ganga, G.; Demitri, N.; Berardi, S.; Amenitsch, H.; Guldi, D. M.; Caramori, S.; Bignozzi, C. A.; Sartorel, A.; Prato, M., Hierarchical organization of perylene bisimides and polyoxometalates for photo-assisted water oxidation. Nature Chemistry 2019, 11 (2), 146-153

B-MRS Newsletter: – Are there any products in the nanomedicine market based on functionalized carbon nanomaterials? If not, what are, in your opinion, the steps that need to be taken to turn the scientific advances in this field into products? In terms of safety, is there a consensus on the possibility of using these nanomaterials without major health risks?

The family of carbon nanomaterials is very broad, the most representative examples being fullerenes, carbon nanotubes and graphene. These materials have opened new scientific horizons, with many exciting discoveries. There are already many commercial items that contain carbon nanostructures, especially graphene. On the other hand, as many other types of nanomaterials, also those based on carbon have raised safety issues. In our group, we have discovered that the functionalization process increases a lot the biocompatibility of these materials, making them more easily dispersible in water and biological media. Therefore, we consider the functionalization process a key step on the way to applications, at least for some of these new materials.

For more information on this speaker and the plenary talk he will deliver at the XVIII B-MRS Meeting, click on the speaker’s photo and the title of the lecture here https://www.sbpmat.org.br/18encontro/#lectures.