The Advancement of Optical Tweezers: Safer and More Efficient Manipulation

Optical tweezers, a revolutionary technology that uses lasers to manipulate tiny entities like cells and nanoparticles, have been at the forefront of scientific research. The development of optical tweezers was even recognized with a Nobel Prize in 2018. Now, scientists have taken another leap forward by leveraging supercomputers to make optical tweezers safer for use on living cells. This advancement holds great potential for applications in cancer therapy, environmental monitoring, and more.

Enhancing Safety in Biological Applications

The recent study published in Nature Communications showcases the work of Pavana Kollipara, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. graduate from The University of Texas at Austin. Collaborating with Yuebing Zheng, Kollipara’s research focuses on making optical tweezers more suitable for biological applications. The team achieved this by introducing a method to keep the targeted particles cool while using the tweezers. This novel approach, named hypothermal opto-thermophoretic tweezers (HOTTs), enables low-power trapping of diverse colloids and biological cells in their natural fluid environments.

The primary challenge addressed by Kollipara and colleagues was the tendency of conventional optical tweezers to scorch samples, rendering them unsuitable for biological studies. By cooling down the entire system and then applying laser beams, the scientists ensured that the temperature remained close to the ambient temperature. This approach allows for lower laser power trapping while maintaining precise temperature control, eliminating any photon or thermal damage to the cells. The team demonstrated the effectiveness of their method on human red blood cells, which are particularly sensitive to temperature changes.

The implications of this research extend to drug delivery applications as well. The scientists successfully trapped plasmonic vesicles, which are tiny gold nanoparticle-coated bio-containers, using the HOTTs technique. These vesicles can serve as carriers for drugs and are guided to specific locations within a solution, resembling the targeted delivery of drugs to cancer tumors. Once the vesicles reach their designated target, a secondary laser beam bursts them open, releasing the loaded drug cargo. This laser-induced drug delivery method allows for highly focused drug administration, reducing overall drug consumption and enabling precise targeting.

The Role of Supercomputers

The complexity of the system necessitated the use of supercomputer simulations to calculate the 3D force exerted on the particles. The simulations incorporated optical, thermalphoretic, and thermoelectric fields generated by the laser power. Kollipara’s access to the Stampede2 supercomputer, provided by the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), significantly accelerated the process. Traditional workstations were unable to support the computational requirements, with simulations taking several days to generate a single data point. With the immense computing power of Stampede2, thousands of simulations could be performed efficiently, enabling faster analysis and results.

Beyond the specific research on optical tweezers, Kollipara highlighted the broader impact of supercomputing resources. His previous work on plasmic biosensors also benefited from TACC’s Lonestar5 system, which supported extensive simulations. The availability of such resources through the University of Texas Research Cyberinfrastructure (UTRC) enhances the capability and productivity of scientists within the UT System.

Kollipara emphasized the importance of advanced research infrastructure in driving scientific progress. He noted that merely building a sophisticated model is inadequate; it is essential to validate and refine the model through experimentation. Laptop computers or local workstations often fall short in meeting the demands of intensive research and development. Supercomputers like Stampede2 and Lonestar5 bridge this gap, providing researchers with the computational power required for rigorous scientific investigations.

Optical tweezers have made significant strides in recent years, propelling scientific discovery and innovation. With the development of HOTTs and the integration of supercomputers, optical tweezers can now be utilized more safely in biological applications, expanding their range of potential applications. As research continues to push boundaries, enhanced research infrastructure, including access to supercomputers, will play a pivotal role in unlocking new possibilities in various scientific disciplines.


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