Nanomaterials researchers urgently need well-structured and publicly accessible databases to advance the field, say scientists at UNC and RTI.
Nanomaterials researchers urgently need well-structured and publicly accessible databases to advance the field, say scientists at UNC and RTI.

Nanomaterials researchers urgently need well-structured and publicly accessible databases to advance their field, according to scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Research Triangle Institute. RTI transferred the Nanomaterial Registry database to UNC-Chapel Hill, and the University is offering it as a repository for the field’s collective knowledge.

The UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy administers the registry database. Scientists at the School and at RTI published a commentary in Nature Nanotechnology calling for concerted efforts among database stewards, researchers, funding agencies and publishers to encourage meaningful growth of existing nanomaterials databases.

“The field of nanotechnology is relatively small compared to chemistry and biology, but it is growing quickly. It is large enough to require a set of tools similar to the ones used by chemists and biologists. We need to be ready with them,” said Alex Tropsha, Ph.D., the K.H. Lee Distinguished Professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Tropsha is the steward of the registry database at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Databases are crucial tools once the amount of information generated and used in a certain field reaches a critical mass, Tropsha said. Without databases and the tools to make proper use of them, progress slows and time and money are wasted as scientists to duplicate work already done, repeat failures and fail to capitalize on the advances of others. Robust databases also allow scientists to build modeling tools built with advanced statistical and machine-learning tools that can examine the relationships among data to create predictive models that can point researchers in promising new directions.

Alexander Tropsha, Ph.D., steward of the Nanomaterials Registry
Alexander Tropsha, Ph.D., steward of the Nanomaterials Registry

“Now is the time to recognize the need to create, enhance and maintain databases of nanomaterials and have the databases work with researchers to facilitate data sharing,” Tropsha said. “Databases don’t exist by themselves; they are part of the data cycle. Researchers need a protocol that allows them to share data. Sharing is mandated by major funding agencies, and future progress in the field depends on scientists being able to access and build on the work of others.”

The authors of the commentary suggest that the Protein Data Bank, which supports the work of biologists who work to define the molecular structure of proteins, be used as a model. The structural biology community came together and decided that no scientific journal in their field would publish a researcher’s paper until the data from the project is deposited in the databank.

Currently there are two major nanomaterials databases. The National Cancer Institute offers caNanoLab, which is not fully open and accessible to the public because it contains proprietary data. The other is the Nanomaterials Registry administered by the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. The School is taking initial steps to encourage researchers to deposit their information in the registry.

In 2005, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers received an $11.3 million, five-year grant to conduct multiple studies exploring the use of nanoparticles to create cancer vaccines and improve cancer drug delivery and responses. The grant is administered the Carolina Center for Cancer Nanotechonology Excellence, and scientists whose work is supported by the grant are required to deposit their data with UNC or NCI.

Tropsha is also developing an electronic laboratory notebook platform called NanoBook that facilities the collection and deposit of information into the Nanomaterials Registry.

Authors and Citation

  • Alexander Tropsha, Ph.D., H. Lee Distinguished Professor and associate dean for pharmacoinformatics and data science at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy
  • Karmann Mills, M.S., project manager at the Research Triangle Institute
  • Anthony Hickey, Ph.D., professor emeritus of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and distinguished fellow of the Research Triangle Institute

Tropsha, A., Mills, K. C., & Hickey, A. J. (2017). Reproducibility, sharing and progress in nanomaterial databases. Nature Nanotechnology, 12(12), 1111-1114. doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.233

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