Dr. Kiana Aran on a New Wave of Technological Advancements With Graphene
By Brittany Wade
October 25, 2022 | Graphene has quickly become the newest biotech buzzword as scientists aim to gain new insights into human biology. For years, silicone reigned supreme as the most dominant material in the electronic industry. Today, graphene outperforms silicone as one of the most biocompatible tools for extracting valuable information without disrupting biological systems.
In the latest episode of Bio-IT World’s Trends from the Trenches podcast, host Stan Gloss, founder of BioTeam, speaks with Dr. Kiana Aran, chief scientific officer at Cardea Bio, Keck Graduate Institute associate professor of bioengineering, and founder of the Aran Nebula Foundation about the power of graphene and the benefits of merging it with technology.
“Graphene is a single layer of carbon molecules,” explains Aran. “Everything in our body is made of carbon. It’s the most compatible material we can find that has amazing electronic properties. You can build electronics and conjugate with biology, without impacting... biology and without biology impacting it.”
As digital technology continues to dominate the healthcare space, the most valuable tools will help scientists scan human biosignals faster. As a carbon polymer, graphene propagates biological information quickly, working at a pace consistent with human physiology.
Novel Graphene Technology
Aran and the Cardea Bio team use graphene to make transistors for various biological applications. Transistors—semiconductors that generate, control, or amplify electrical signals—have significantly improved since their inception in the mid-twentieth century.
As silicone replaced older and inefficient materials—and graphene replaced silicone—these transistors can now control wavelengths for target molecule selection. For example, exosomes—vesicles released from the cellular membrane that facilitate cell-to-cell communication—are isolated more efficiently when transistors release wavelengths that select for exosomes over other cellular subjects.
Graphene-based technology can also be used for pathogen detection. Aran and her team created a 15-transistor device as a dual-functioning at-home COVID test. The apparatus detects SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA or spike proteins and offers molecular and quantitative results.
Patients can determine if they have contracted the virus and the extent of their viral load, making it easy to ascertain if they should quarantine or safely re-enter society.
One of Aran’s most impressive achievements has been placing clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) molecules into graphene transistors and programming them to detect specific genetic sequences. “CRISPR as a technology is a [genetic] search engine,” explains Aran. Here, biology itself becomes the technology.
CRISPR-based graphene transistors help scientists bypass the traditional and labor-intensive steps of isolating, amplifying, and enabling DNA to genotype and detect genetic diseases. Sickle cell anemia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy have all been identified with this technology.
Without amplification and other cumbersome tasks, scientists can decrease the likelihood of mistakes. Additionally, original samples are no longer manipulated through amplification, making it feasible to produce accurate quantitative results.
Graphene transistors can also be used to genotype plants through on-site molecular testing to help farmers and agricultural giants identify authentic plant material at the point of sale. No other technology exists today that generates comparable results in real time.
The Aran Nebula Foundation
In 2021, Aran won the Nature Research Award for Inspiring Women in Science under the Scientific Achievement category. She used the resulting prize money to launch the Aran Nebula Foundation. A nebula—a massive cloud of cosmic dust and gas—is where stars are born. “I think every scientist is a star because we put our whole lives towards promoting science, and we should be given opportunities to… be involved in pushing that science towards something that could benefit human lives,” says Aran.
The foundation aims to promote women in STEM and helps build their skill sets in preparation for leadership roles. Aran felt the scientific community lacked an organization that developed highly trained scientists to become industry leaders.
She says, “I think scientists could play a major role in pushing the industry forward if we learn some of the leadership skills that we don’t learn in academia. As women, we [should] focus on the opportunities ahead of us rather than… on limitations.”
The foundation is in the process of building its first cohort and will place a strong focus on offering leadership courses in collaboration with other prominent organizations in the industry.
Trends from the Trenches Podcast
Bio-IT World’s Trends from the Trenches podcast delivers your insider’s look at the science, technology, and executive trends driving the life sciences through conversations with industry leaders. As host, BioTeam co-founder Stan Gloss brings years of industry experience in science, data, and technology to conversations exploring what is driving data and discovery, and what’s coming next.
Catch up on earlier episodes on real-world data in drug discovery, the NIH’s Strategic Plan for Data Science, building AI/ML models for drug discovery, the evolution of supercomputing, updates on AI trends and progress, digitization vs. digital transformation at Alnylam, AWS’s advice on digital transformation, NCI’s Commons of Commons approach to data management, and George Church on the value of neurodiversity.