Forget the washing up, the sponge could soon be used to deliver drugs - but on the nanoscale.
Eva Harth, assistant professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University, has received a $478,000 five-year CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, which will see her creating a modular, multi-functional drug delivery system based on the concept of a "nanosponge".
Specially designed to carry large numbers of drug molecules, the system promises simultaneously to enhance the effectiveness and reduce undesirable side-effects of a number of different drugs.
Harth has discovered a "molecular transporter" that, when attached to the nanosponge, carries it and its cargo into the cell and across membranes into specific intracellular compartments, which are often difficult targets for the delivery of drugs.
"Peptides and proteins can act as drugs, just like smaller molecules. However, there is not much activity in this area because people haven't had a method for getting them into cells. Now that there is a way to do it, but that may change," Harth said in a statement.
So far studies have shown the system can pass through the blood-brain barrier, and has been manipulated to target the delivery of drugs to tumours in the lung, brain, and spinal cord. Fluorescent tags have also been used as a monitoring device.
A nanosponge is a nanoparticle that has extensive internal cross-linking to scrunch a long, linear molecule into a sphere about 10 nanometres in diameter, about the size of a protein.
Such a particle has a large number of surface sites where drug molecules could be attached.
The nanosponge concept differs from other types of nanodrug delivery devices in development, which often involve the encapsulation of the drug within the core of a nanoparticle.
The molecular transporter, which allows the nanosponge to enter cell organelle, is a synthetic dendritic molecule. This has the ability to slip through cell membranes and when attached to the nanosponge, will pull it in as well.
Vanderbilt University professor of pharmacology Heidi Hamm said: "Eva's methods for drug delivery are very novel and versatile and can be adapted to delivery of proteins, peptides, DNA and smaller chemical compounds like most drugs. The breadth of applications makes her technology very powerful."
Harth and Hamm are collaborating on using the transporter to deliver peptides produced by G proteins, important signalling molecules in the cell, that disrupt signalling pathways.
Harth is also working with Dennis Hallahan, professor of radiation oncology at Vanderbilt, to apply the drug delivery system to fighting cancer using an identified molecule that targets a surface feature on lung carcinomas.
The two are adapting the delivery system to carry cisplatinum, a traditional chemotherapy agent. The idea is to use the system and deliver the drug directly to the cancerous tissue which should reduce the adverse effects cisplatinum has on other tissues while increasing the cancer killing potency of the drug.
Vanderbilt is applying for two patents on the system.
The Career award is the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award for junior faculty members and is given to individuals judged most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.
Harth was unavailable for comment at time of publishing.