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Nanoparticles Create Spirals in the Lungs

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Image of black spirals
Caption: Snapshot of changes that occur (black) when surfactant molecules are stressed by carbon nanoparticles. For the less spectacular “before” image, click the “Continue reading” link.
Source: Prajnaparamita Dhar, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Kansas, Lawrence

These eye-catching spirals may resemble a trendy print from Diane von Furstenberg’s Spring Collection, but they’re actually a close-up of lung surfactant—a lipid-protein film that coats the inside of the air sacs in the lungs, making it easier to breathe. Made using fluorescence microscopy techniques, this image shows what happens to the surfactant (black) when it interacts with carbon nanoparticles.

Scientists found that carbon nanoparticles rearrange the surfactant molecules from kidney bean shaped clusters into solid spirals. Since carbon nanoparticles may be effective drug delivery vehicles, it’s important to know how these molecules alter the surfactant—and whether these changes are harmful.

The verdict is still out on whether disrupting the surfactant triggers breathing problems, but we can still be mesmerized by the image.

Image of black circles with small wedges of vacant space, much like a pie with a slice missing
Caption: Lung surfactant before the addition of carbon nanoparticles
Source: Prajnaparamita Dhar


Lipid-protein interactions alter line tensions and domain size distributions in lung surfactant monolayers. Dhar P, Eck E, Israelachvili JN, Lee DW, Min Y, Ramachandran A, Waring AJ, Zasadzinski JA. Biophys J. 2012 Jan 4;102(1):56-65.

As highlighted in Biomedical Beat, a monthly digest of research news from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIH.

NIH support: the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences


  • manivannan chennappan says:

    Lung surfactant interaction with gold particles and display of symmetry show a possibility of complete cure of COPD.

  • Herman S Hawkins says:

    I have COPD and am trying to figure out what is the meaning of spirals in the lungs. This puzzles me because I have had asthma over a period of 24 years, starting when I was deployed overseas to serve my country in the Gulf War, which was in 1990 to 1991. In all this period of time, receiving treatment from many and many doctors, this was never spoken about…

  • Dr. Sri S. Sriskanda says:

    I worked with liposomes at the Indiana State University. This is also neat and new to study the lungs. I miss research and America everyday here at Batticaloa, Sri Lanka – Shri Lanka.

  • Dr Grace GJ says:

    The changes have got to be harmful…seems oxygen and co2 molecules would have a hard time traversing this tangled web of a mess, hence difficulty breathing…COPD ehh?
    Beautiful pattern though…may soon see on some high fashion , courtier garment…. researchers should actually sell the pattern .

  • KONG DERICK says:

    Disrupting the surfactant structure should have a harmful effect. We do know that it has a function through a mechanism to lower the surface tension of the fluid in the air sac. Change in structure should lead to a change in the mechanism, thereby disrupting the function, which should lead in the long run to the collapse of the lungs.

  • K.D. says:

    i’ll interest about that nanoparticles technology maybe next i have suggest that about electricity in human body that can control to become other energy for cell phone and anything and maybe can control gravity to the earth with nano technology biological electricity in human body sources

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