Nanodiamond 'tiny machines' closer to reality with global finding

Sydney quantum physicists have played a leading role in global research towards the development of non-invasive nanodiamond imaging – linking the gold standard MRI with synthetic industrial diamonds for targeted drug delivery.

Nanoparticles are rapidly emerging as a viable future medicine technology for the targeted delivery of vaccines, chemotherapy agents, immunotheraputics and as a means of tracking tumour distribution on whole-body scales, with nanodiamonds tracking diseases and lighting up in a patient’s body like a Christmas tree.

Research by a collaboration of scientists in Australia and the United States demonstrates that using nanodiamonds somewhat like ‘tiny machines’ inside living patients has taken a quantum leap closer to reality.

The findings are published today in Nature Communications.

Lead author, University of Sydney quantum physicist and ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS) PhD student David Waddington said key to the new research was the demonstration of biocompatible nanodiamond contrast, overcoming a major challenge of competing techniques where nanodiamond must be prepared in freezing conditions before injection.

“People are very interested in using nanoparticles for targeted delivery of vaccines and chemotherapy agents,” said Mr Waddington, who is completing his PhD this year.

Mr Waddington said the research was three years in the making and was initiated with a Fulbright Scholarship awarded early in his PhD at the University of Sydney, where he works in the team led by Professor David Reilly (who is a Chief Investigator at EQuS), in the new $150m Sydney Nanoscience Hub – the headquarters of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (AINST), which launched last year.

Supported by Professor Reilly, Mr Waddington used the Scholarship to establish an ongoing collaboration with Associate Professor Matthew Rosen's lab in the Martinos Center at Massachusetts General Hospital – one of the world's most successful biomedical imaging centers – and Professor Ronald Walsworth's group at Harvard University.

“Key to researchers being able to determine the differences between successful and unsuccessful treatments is the ability to monitor the nanoparticles in vivo, as opposed to in a test tube, which is challenging with current approaches,” Mr Waddington said.

“In our paper, we detail a new technique we have developed and demonstrated for imaging nanoparticles – this technique is particularly promising as it will enable imaging of nanoparticles over the long timescales necessary for in vivo tracking.

“As a result of our new research, we can repeatedly perform hyperpolarisation in a biocompatible environment.

"This enables nanodiamond imaging over indefinitely long periods of time and opening up the study of a range of diseases such as those affecting the brain and liver.”

The initial research published in Nature Communications in late 2015 led by Professor Reilly laid the groundwork for nanodiamond imaging based on a technique known as hyperpolarisation.  

Mr Waddington said: “Our close collaboration with the Rosen lab at the Martinos Center – world leaders in ultra-low field MRI – has been essential to the completion of this work, which began during the time I spent there on the Fulbright scholarship.”  

Professor Reilly, who leads a team that includes Mr Waddington and is focused primarily on developing quantum machines, said the nanodiamond finding was a great example of the benefits of experimental physics in generating unintended discoveries.

“It's estimated that such ultra-low field MRI scanners could be produced at a fraction of the cost of conventional MRI scanners, which could lead to this imaging technique being widely accessible in the future,” Professor Reilly said.

The original press release is on the University of Sydney website hereRead more in the Massachusetts General Hospital media release.

Contact: Vivienne Reiner, Media and PR Adviser,, +61 02 9351 2390

Major funding support

Australian Research Council

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS) acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present.