Scientists Using Acoustic Levitation To Make For Better Pharmaceutical Drugs

By David Wharton | Published

When you see the word “levitation,” the first thing that comes to your mind is probably a magician sweeping a hoop along the length of his hovering assistant, just to show that she’s not dangling from wires. I think it’s probably safe to say that, for most of us, the word “levitation” doesn’t conjure up thoughts of the pharmaceutical industry. But believe it or not, scientists are using a form of levitation — acoustic levitation — to make for better and more potent pharmaceutical drugs.

Argonne scientist Chris Benmore works with an acoustic levitator.

The problem is thus: when you get down to the molecular level, there are two types of “pharmaceutical structures”: amorphous and crystalline. As explained by Argonne National Laboratory’s website, “Amorphous drugs typically are more efficiently taken up by the body than their crystalline cousins; this is because amorphous drugs are both more highly soluble and have a higher bioavailability, suggesting that a lower dose can produce the desired effect.” In other words, it takes less of the amorphous drugs to get the desired effect from the drug.

It’s very tricky to get a solution to shift into an amorphous state, so unfortunately, most of the drugs on the market fall under the crystalline category. That means they’re not very efficient at being absorbed by the body and getting you the results you want. Argonne X-ray physicist Chris Benmore says that “It’s almost as if these substances want to find a way to become crystalline.” Unfortunately, if the substance touches a container, it’s more likely to become crystalline.

And that’s where the levitation comes into play. NASA had developed a gizmo called an acoustic levitator in order to simulate microgravity conditions. The device does more or less what you’d expect from its name: two speakers blast high-frequency sound waves at each other, resulting in a “standing wave” that actually counteracts the force of gravity and allowing you to levitate a light objects or substances there in the sweet spot. This allows scientists to evaporate a solution without it touching anything and makes the conversion into an amorphous state a lot easier.

So there you have it. Next time your parents/spouse/sibling complains about you playing your music too loud, just tell them you’re trying to create a standing wave in order to help save humanity with drugs.
Photo courtesy Argonne National Laboratory