Current state of knowledge

AFM is widely used in solid-state physics and to a lesser extent in biology. In molecular biology, AFM has been applied to numerous studies due to its extreme force measurement sensitivity, magnification and high signal-to-noise ratio (S/N). Perhaps the most well-known applications is imaging studies of single molecules, but considerable efforts have also been made to quantify intermolecular binding strengths at the nanometer length scale.

As described above, AFM holds the promise to become a key enabling tool for studying biological materials obtained from patients, as an analytical instrument for detecting single molecules in different specimens such as blood, tissues or cells. Since the AFM tips interact with probed samples, numerous experiments can be designed to identify structures on biological surfaces and to manipulate them. In medical research, a virtually unexplored area is the characterization of the mechanical properties of cells and tissues obtained from patients. Some exciting reports in the literature indeed showed that AFM is able to reveal marked differences in mechanical properties of cells, e.g. the elasticity of cancer cells and normal cells, or cell stiffness changes in response to hormone stimuli. However, this ability of AFM is rarely utilized in medicine. A major reason is the lack of in-depth training for medical scientists in the use and applications of the AFM technique to living matter. This seriously hampers them to start and supervise AFM projects and results in unconscious ignorance of new perspectives evolving from biophysics and bio-nanotechnology. The aim of this Action is to change this situation. So far no EU Framework Programme is directly connected to this COST Action. One of the objectives of the Action is to pave the way for one or several EU Framework Programme proposals.

The Action envisions an establishment of a dynamic network of AFM scientists including the major AFM centres in Europe. These AFM research centres have different focuses or specialization, such as AFM imaging, AFM manipulations, AFM nanomechanics, AFM nanodiagnostics, and so on. These centres will provide a diverse training environment for physician-scientists based on their needs, thus introducing new aspects of technological knowledge for their research. This training strategy will provide the basis for medical scientists to becoming AFM experts. As they return to their clinical research facilities, they can build up their own AFM laboratories. By interacting with medical scientists, the range of applications of AFM would be significantly enhanced in Nanomedicine and biology. By exploring new research fields of AFM, one may also identify current limitations and propose solutions to overcome them by integrating the network expertise.