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Black phosphorus and the microscopic fight against cancer

South Dakota Mines
Dr. Wang with his research group — Annaliese Braucht, Katherine Ballard, Jinyuan Liu and Zhengqiang Li.

Black phosphorus might look like gunpowder to the average person, but Congzhou Wang, assistant professor of nanoscience and biomedical engineering at South Dakota Mines, sees much more.

“It’s a very interesting material. It’s kind of like a layer-by-layer structured material.”

Wang says mechanical processing can produce a very thin layer of black phosphorus — a nanosheet.

“So the lateral size of the nanosheet is around 100 nanometers, but it’s super thin. The vertical thickness is around three to five nanometers.”

For reference, Wang says that’s the width of one human hair divided 1,000 times

The unique properties of this material mean it could be particularly potent in the field of cancer treatment.

“It can absorb the light. Especially what we call near-infrared light —laser light," Wang said." So, when we target this nanomaterial into the cancer cell and we shine a laser which can penetrate through your tissue, those lasers can be converted to heat energy by those nanoparticles. Then this heat energy can change the biology of the cancer cell to make them more sensitive to the chemotherapy.”

Wang, along with Steve Smith, head of Mines' Department of Nanoscience and Biomedical Engineering, have received a $413,000 research grant from the National Cancer Institute to study the use of black phosphorus.

The goal is reversing the progression of breast cancer.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering education, healthcare, arts and culture.