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Quantum dots − a new Nobel laureate describes the development of these nanoparticles from basic research to industry application

Louis Brus explains some of the foundational research – and how even the letter carrier wants to shake your hand when you’ve just won a Nobel Priz…

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Louis Brus, center, shares Nobel recognition with two other quantum dots pioneers. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

The Nobel Prize in chemistry for 2023 goes to three scientists “for the discovery and synthesis of quantum dots.” The Conversation Weekly podcast caught up with one of this trio, physical chemist Louis Brus, who did foundational work figuring out that the properties of these nanoparticles depend on their size. Brus’ phone was off when the Nobel reps called to inform him of the good news, but now plenty of people have gotten through with congratulations and advice. Below are edited excerpts from the podcast.

When you were working at Bell Labs in the 1980s and discovered quantum dots, it was something of an accident. You were studying solutions of semiconductor particles. And when you aimed lasers at these solutions, called colloids, you noticed that the colors they emitted were not constant.

On the first day we made the colloid, sometimes the spectrum was different. Second and third day, it was normal. There certainly was a surprise when I first saw this change in the spectrum. And so, I began to try to figure out what the heck was going on with that.

I noticed that the property of the particle itself began to change at a very small size.

What you’d found was a quantum dot: a type of nanoparticle that absorbs light and emits it at another wavelength. Crucially, the color of these particles changes depending on the actual size of the particle. How do you even see a quantum dot crystal, since one is just a few hundred thousandths the width of a human hair?

Well, you can’t see them with an optical microscope because they’re smaller than the wavelength of light. There are ways to see them too, using other types of specialist microscopes, such as an electron microscope. And a common way of demonstrating them is to line up a row of brightly colored glass flasks each with a solution of different sized quantum dots inside it.

diagram of a molecule next to a soccer ball next to a planet
A quantum dot is a crystal that often consists of just a few thousand atoms. In terms of size, it has the same relationship to a soccer ball as a soccer ball has to the size of the Earth. Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, CC BY-ND

One of your fellow laureates, Alexei Ekimov, was a Russian scientist, and he’d actually observed quantum dots in colored glass, but you weren’t aware of his findings at the time?

Yes, that’s right. The Cold War was going on at that time, and he published in the Russian literature, in Russian. And he wasn’t allowed to travel to the West to talk about his work.

I asked around among all the physicists, was there any work on small particles? I was trying to make a model of the quantum size effects. And they told me no, nobody’s really working on this. Nobody had seen his articles, basically.

I was part of the U.S. chemistry community, doing synthetic chemistry in the laboratory. He was in the glass industry in the Soviet Union, working on industrial technology.

When I eventually found his articles in the technological literature, I wrote a letter to the Soviet Union, with my papers, just to say hello to Ekimov and his colleagues. When the letter came, the KGB came to talk to the Russian scientists, trying to figure out why they had any contact with anybody in the West. But in fact they had never talked to me or anyone in the West when my letter arrived in the mail.

Have you met him since?

Yes, they were able to come out of the Soviet Union during Glasnost, this would be the late 1980s. There’s Ekimov, and then there is his theoretical collaborator Sasha Efros, who now works at the U.S. Naval Research Lab. I met them as soon as they came to the U.S.


Listen to the interview with Louis Brus on The Conversation Weekly podcast. Each week, academic experts tell us about the fascinating discoveries they’re making to understand the world and the big questions they’re still trying to answer.


One of the issues with quantum dots, when you first observed them, was how to actually produce them and keep them stable. Then, in the 1990s, your fellow laureate, Moungi Bawendi, figured this out. What do you think is the most striking thing that you’ve seen quantum dots used in so far?

Usually when a new material is invented, it takes a long time to figure out what it’s really good for. Research scientists, they have ideas, you might use it for this, you might use it for that. But then, if you talk to people in the actual industry, who deal every day with manufacturing problems, these ideas are often not very good.

But the knowledge that we gained, the scientific principles, could be used to help to design new devices.

As far as first applications, people began to try to use them in biological imaging. Biochemists attach quantum dots to other molecules to help map cells and organs. They’ve even been used to detect tumors, and to help guide surgeons during operations.

7 glowing vials
Quantum dot particles were continually improved so they would reliably emit very particular colors. Tayfun Ruzgar/iStock via Getty Images Plus

And as scientists kept working to synthesize quantum dots, the quality of the particles kept improving. They were emitting pure colors, rather than distributions of light – like maybe red with a little bit of green, or maybe red with some pink. When you got a better particle, it would be just pure red, for instance.

So then people made the connection to the display industry – computer displays and television displays. In this application, you want to convert electricity into three colors: red, green and blue. You can make up any kind of image, starting with just those three colors in different proportions.

It takes a lot of courage. You have to invest a lot of money to develop the technology, and maybe at the end of it, it’s not good enough, and it will not replace what you already have. And there’s a lot of credit due to the Samsung Corporation in Japan. Hundreds of billions of dollars were invested in the technology of these particles to get them to the point where they could begin to manufacture displays and flat-panel TVs using quantum dots.

Your work is an example of the importance of basic research, of being curious, trying to solve mysteries without a particular endpoint or industrial application in sight. What message would you have for a young chemist starting out today working on such basic research?

The world is a huge place, and you could do basic research in a huge number of different areas. You want to pick a problem where, if you are spectacularly successful and you actually discover something really interesting, it might have some application in the world.

For better or for worse, you have to make a choice in the beginning, and it takes some intuition.

A good way to do it is you pick a subject that you know is important to technology, but there’s no understanding of the science at the present time. It’s a complete black box. Nobody understands the basic principles. That kind of problem, you can begin to take it apart and look to see what the basic steps are.

What changes for you now that you’ve won the Nobel Prize?

Well, this Nobel Prize, for better or for worse, has a special meaning in people’s minds all over the world. Yesterday when the mailman came I happened to be at the front door and he recognized me because my face was in the local newspaper. And he said, “I’ve never shaken the hand of a Nobel laureate before.”

For better or for worse, this is where I am right now, in a special category whether I like it or not. I still have my office in the university, but I don’t have a research group. I’m trying to leave that to the younger people. So this recognition probably means less for my research than it would if I was 40 years old.

I have received congratulations by email from a number of people who won the prize in past years. Their main recommendation is you must learn to say no. People will ask you to do all kinds of crazy things, and your time will be entirely taken up with these honorific university visits and giving little speeches. In order to have a real life and to be productive, you have to say no to all of these extraneous invitations.

elaborate stage ceremony
The Nobel Prize awards ceremony in Stockholm is a black-tie affair. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

And they also told me to have fun in Sweden! It’s an extremely elaborate schedule of events for that week in December when this award ceremony is. Extremely fancy. American culture, physics culture is different – if you win a prize from the American Physical Society, it’s a very low-key event. You just show up in an auditorium. It’s not even necessary to wear a suit.

So I will take my family, my grandchildren to Sweden and we’ll try to enjoy this as a great vacation.

Louis Brus does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Four burning questions about the future of the $16.5B Novo-Catalent deal

To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.
Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand…

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To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.

Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand its own production capacity for its weight loss drugs, the Danish drugmaker said Monday it will pay $11 billion to acquire three manufacturing plants from Catalent. It’s part of a broader $16.5 billion deal with Novo Holdings, the investment arm of the pharma’s parent group, which agreed to acquire the contract manufacturer and take it private.

It’s a big deal for all parties, with potential ripple effects across the biotech ecosystem. Here’s a look at some of the most pressing questions to watch after Monday’s announcement.

Why did Novo do this?

Novo Holdings isn’t the most obvious buyer for Catalent, particularly after last year’s on-and-off M&A interest from the serial acquirer Danaher. But the deal could benefit both Novo Holdings and Novo Nordisk.

Novo Nordisk’s biggest challenge has been simply making enough of the weight loss drug Wegovy and diabetes therapy Ozempic. On last week’s earnings call, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said the company isn’t constrained by capital in its efforts to boost manufacturing. Rather, the main challenge is the limited amount of capabilities out there, he said.

“Most pharmaceutical companies in the world would be shopping among the same manufacturers,” he said. “There’s not an unlimited amount of machinery and people to build it.”

While Novo was already one of Catalent’s major customers, the manufacturer has been hamstrung by its own balance sheet. With roughly $5 billion in debt on its books, it’s had to juggle paying down debt with sufficiently investing in its facilities. That’s been particularly challenging in keeping pace with soaring demand for GLP-1 drugs.

Novo, on the other hand, has the balance sheet to funnel as much money as needed into the plants in Italy, Belgium, and Indiana. It’s also struggled to make enough of its popular GLP-1 drugs to meet their soaring demand, with documented shortages of both Ozempic and Wegovy.

The impact won’t be immediate. The parties expect the deal to close near the end of 2024. Novo Nordisk said it expects the three new sites to “gradually increase Novo Nordisk’s filling capacity from 2026 and onwards.”

As for the rest of Catalent — nearly 50 other sites employing thousands of workers — Novo Holdings will take control. The group previously acquired Altasciences in 2021 and Ritedose in 2022, so the Catalent deal builds on a core investing interest in biopharma services, Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay told Endpoints News.

Kasim Kutay

When asked about possible site closures or layoffs, Kutay said the team hasn’t thought about that.

“That’s not our track record. Our track record is to invest in quality businesses and help them grow,” he said. “There’s always stuff to do with any asset you own, but we haven’t bought this company to do some of the stuff you’re talking about.”

What does it mean for Catalent’s customers? 

Until the deal closes, Catalent will operate as a standalone business. After it closes, Novo Nordisk said it will honor its customer obligations at the three sites, a spokesperson said. But they didn’t answer a question about what happens when those contracts expire.

The wrinkle is the long-term future of the three plants that Novo Nordisk is paying for. Those sites don’t exclusively pump out Wegovy, but that could be the logical long-term aim for the Danish drugmaker.

The ideal scenario is that pricing and timelines remain the same for customers, said Nicole Paulk, CEO of the gene therapy startup Siren Biotechnology.

Nicole Paulk

“The name of the group that you’re going to send your check to is now going to be Novo Holdings instead of Catalent, but otherwise everything remains the same,” Paulk told Endpoints. “That’s the best-case scenario.”

In a worst case, Paulk said she feared the new owners could wind up closing sites or laying off Catalent groups. That could create some uncertainty for customers looking for a long-term manufacturing partner.

Are shareholders and regulators happy? 

The pandemic was a wild ride for Catalent’s stock, with shares surging from about $40 to $140 and then crashing back to earth. The $63.50 share price for the takeover is a happy ending depending on the investor.

On that point, the investing giant Elliott Investment Management is satisfied. Marc Steinberg, a partner at Elliott, called the agreement “an outstanding outcome” that “clearly maximizes value for Catalent stockholders” in a statement.

Elliott helped kick off a strategic review last August that culminated in the sale agreement. Compared to Catalent’s stock price before that review started, the deal pays a nearly 40% premium.

Alessandro Maselli

But this is hardly a victory lap for CEO Alessandro Maselli, who took over in July 2022 when Catalent’s stock price was north of $100. Novo’s takeover is a tacit acknowledgment that Maselli could never fully right the ship, as operational problems plagued the company throughout 2023 while it was limited by its debt.

Additional regulatory filings in the next few weeks could give insight into just how competitive the sale process was. William Blair analysts said they don’t expect a competing bidder “given the organic investments already being pursued at other leading CDMOs and the breadth and scale of Catalent’s operations.”

The Blair analysts also noted the companies likely “expect to spend some time educating relevant government agencies” about the deal, given the lengthy closing timeline. Given Novo Nordisk’s ascent — it’s now one of Europe’s most valuable companies — paired with the limited number of large contract manufacturers, antitrust regulators could be interested in taking a close look.

Are Catalent’s problems finally a thing of the past?

Catalent ran into a mix of financial and operational problems over the past year that played no small part in attracting the interest of an activist like Elliott.

Now with a deal in place, how quickly can Novo rectify those problems? Some of the challenges were driven by the demands of being a publicly traded company, like failing to meet investors’ revenue expectations or even filing earnings reports on time.

But Catalent also struggled with its business at times, with a range of manufacturing delays, inspection reports and occasionally writing down acquisitions that didn’t pan out. Novo’s deep pockets will go a long way to a turnaround, but only the future will tell if all these issues are fixed.

Kutay said his team is excited by the opportunity and was satisfied with the due diligence it did on the company.

“We believe we’re buying a strong company with a good management team and good prospects,” Kutay said. “If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think we’d be here.”

Amber Tong and Reynald Castañeda contributed reporting.

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Petrina Kamya, Ph.D., Head of AI Platforms at Insilico Medicine, presents at BIO CEO & Investor Conference

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb….

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Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

Credit: Insilico Medicine

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

The session will look at how the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools – including generative AI and large language models – are currently being used to advance the discovery and design of new drugs, and which technologies are still in development. 

The BIO CEO & Investor Conference brings together over 1,000 attendees and more than 700 companies across industry and institutional investment to discuss the future investment landscape of biotechnology. Sessions focus on topics such as therapeutic advancements, market outlook, and policy priorities.

Insilico Medicine is a leading, clinical stage AI-driven drug discovery company that has raised over $400m in investments since it was founded in 2014. Dr. Kamya leads the development of the Company’s end-to-end generative AI platform, Pharma.AI from Insilico’s AI R&D Center in Montreal. Using modern machine learning techniques in the context of chemistry and biology, the platform has driven the discovery and design of 30+ new therapies, with five in clinical stages – for cancer, fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and COVID-19. The Company’s lead drug, for the chronic, rare lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is the first AI-designed drug for an AI-discovered target to reach Phase II clinical trials with patients. Nine of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have used Insilico’s AI platform to advance their programs, and the Company has a number of major strategic licensing deals around its AI-designed therapeutic assets, including with Sanofi, Exelixis and Menarini. 

 

About Insilico Medicine

Insilico Medicine, a global clinical stage biotechnology company powered by generative AI, is connecting biology, chemistry, and clinical trials analysis using next-generation AI systems. The company has developed AI platforms that utilize deep generative models, reinforcement learning, transformers, and other modern machine learning techniques for novel target discovery and the generation of novel molecular structures with desired properties. Insilico Medicine is developing breakthrough solutions to discover and develop innovative drugs for cancer, fibrosis, immunity, central nervous system diseases, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and aging-related diseases. www.insilico.com 


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Another country is getting ready to launch a visa for digital nomads

Early reports are saying Japan will soon have a digital nomad visa for high-earning foreigners.

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Over the last decade, the explosion of remote work that came as a result of improved technology and the pandemic has allowed an increasing number of people to become digital nomads. 

When looked at more broadly as anyone not required to come into a fixed office but instead moves between different locations such as the home and the coffee shop, the latest estimate shows that there were more than 35 million such workers in the world by the end of 2023 while over half of those come from the United States.

Related: There is a new list of cities that are best for digital nomads

While remote work has also allowed many to move to cheaper places and travel around the world while still bringing in income, working outside of one's home country requires either dual citizenship or work authorization — the global shift toward remote work has pushed many countries to launch specific digital nomad visas to boost their economies and bring in new residents.

Japan is a very popular destination for U.S. tourists. 

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This popular vacation destination will soon have a nomad visa

Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Latvia and Malta are some of the countries currently offering specific visas for foreigners who want to live there while bringing in income from abroad.

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With the exception of a few, Asian countries generally have stricter immigration laws and were much slower to launch these types of visas that some of the countries with weaker economies had as far back as 2015. As first reported by the Japan Times, the country's Immigration Services Agency ended up making the leap toward a visa for those who can earn more than ¥10 million ($68,300 USD) with income from another country.

The Japanese government has not yet worked out the specifics of how long the visa will be valid for or how much it will cost — public comment on the proposal is being accepted throughout next week. 

That said, early reports say the visa will be shorter than the typical digital nomad option that allows foreigners to live in a country for several years. The visa will reportedly be valid for six months or slightly longer but still no more than a year — along with the ability to work, this allows some to stay beyond the 90-day tourist period typically afforded to those from countries with visa-free agreements.

'Not be given a residence card of residence certificate'

While one will be able to reapply for the visa after the time runs out, this can only be done by exiting the country and being away for six months before coming back again — becoming a permanent resident on the pathway to citizenship is an entirely different process with much more strict requirements.

"Those living in Japan with the digital nomad visa will not be given a residence card or a residence certificate, which provide access to certain government benefits," reports the news outlet. "The visa cannot be renewed and must be reapplied for, with this only possible six months after leaving the countr

The visa will reportedly start in March and also allow holders to bring their spouses and families with them. To start using the visa, holders will also need to purchase private health insurance from their home country while taxes on any money one earns will also need to be paid through one's home country.

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