Tiny bubbles may be major health breakthrough

Mar 11, 2016

Dr. George Wicks of the Applied Research Center, or ARC, in Aiken, spoke to the Senior Men’s Club of Aiken at the February meeting.


Wicks is a retired advisory scientist who spent 40 years at the Savannah River National Laboratory. His formal education includes a master’s in applied physics from Harvard University and a PhD. D. in material science from MIT. He was inducted into the World Academy of Ceramics in 2014, was president of the American Ceramic Society in 2011 and 2012, and currently has his own consulting company and is an adjunct professor for several universities.


Wicks told of exciting advances in materials technology that cross over into new innovations in medicine and health care, as well as Security Printing Safeguards and protection from the use of counterfeit manufactured products. He unabashedly spoke of the ARC as a combination of “Heaven and the Magic Kingdom” for researchers and the type of facility that can take interdisciplinary cutting edge technologies to new levels and ultimately, commercialization.


Because of the many interdisciplinary activities at ARC, Wicks chose to discuss one application in the medical field involving tiny glass bubbles and their composites. These tiny glass micro-balloons are about �/³ the diameter of a human hair and their unique feature is a through-wall porosity that was induced and controlled through their thin outer shells. This porosity is controlled on a scale of only 100 to 1,000 angstroms. An angstrom unit is one ten-billionth of a meter.


These bubbles represent one of many “multi-use technologies,” originally developed in the nuclear complex for nuclear-related activities, but also represents a very versatile technology that has many other uses in other fields and disciplines.


The glass microspheres can be seen and characterized using light microscopy and the very small porosity further detailed using a Hitachi 8230 Scanning Electron Microscope equipped with an Oxford EDS System. This new capability can magnify objects over a million times and is believed to be the most advanced system of its type in the southeast United States.


Wicks stressed that as small as the glass microspheres are, it is possible to put even smaller bubbles inside larger bubbles along with many types of cargoes or payloads. In this manner, a composite cocktail of medical materials can be loaded into the microspheres and used for a variety of medical devices, as well as drug delivery systems.


In one application involving cancer treatment, different types of solid and/or hollow microspheres can be loaded with desired cargos/medications, that can then be coated with biocompatible, bioactive and/or biodegradable coatings. They would then be incorporated within gel-based matrices to produce new and tailored classes of composites that can be injected into locations of interest, resulting in placement of time release tablets in strategic locations. These then have the potential of delivering the medical cargoes in a slow release manner and on demand, as desired by clinicians.


Collaboration with the medical community has been very important and resulted in a new spin-out company. Wicks is currently working with doctors from Augusta University and the VA on new uses, applications and systems for this unique class of composite materials.