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When it comes to fighting cancer, Ryan Robinson thinks big in the smallest of environments.

That microscopic outlook recently earned the University of Utah bioengineering major and former Taylorsville High valedictorian national recognition in a nanotechnology competition hosted by the University of Notre Dame. He wasn't simply honored. He took first place.

Robinson's winning idea? Create gold nano cages containing chemotherapy. Those cages, when zapped with a laser, could release cancer-fighting drugs directly into a tumor.

"I wanted to work on a particle that would allow us to incorporate a drug," said Robinson, who, as a freshman, worked with graduate student Adam Gormley on nano-sized gold spheres and rods. "I started doing research … and came across Younan Xai's recent work. He came up with a method to synthesize cages."

The word "small" is an understatement when describing Robinson's cages. One would need to take a human hair and divide it by 1,000 to get an accurate measuring stick for the size of his award-winning creation.

Robinson began working on creating cages in early summer and managed to advance Xai's work on speeding up the synthesizing process.

The technology would work like this: The cages would be coated with a heat-sensitive polymer. Consequently, the cages would shrink with heat, releasing the chemotherapy.

Hamid Ghandehari, co-founder and co-director of the Nano Institute of Utah, said Robinson has always been among the "higher echelon" of undergraduates since the student entered his lab three years ago.

Before Robinson had even entered the U.'s undergraduate program, Ghandehari recalled, he stopped by the institute and expressed interest in nanotechnology.

"That's remarkable for a person who is 18 years old," said Ghandehari, who served as Robinson's adviser on the project.

Robinson, now 21, said he always has been interested in science, but was introduced to nanotechnology in the eighth grade when he turned to the subject for a science project.

This year, he traveled to Notre Dame as one of nine finalists in the inaugural competition. The judging, Robinson explained, was based more on the finalists' knowledge and understanding of their subject, rather than on how much progress had been made in the field.

"Ryan's project was distinctive for its clear scientific approach and its practical potential for cancer treatment," said Alan Seabaugh, director of the Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery and organizer of the event. "Ryan impressed us with his breadth and depth of knowledge and his clear description of what he had done and where he was going."

Robinson's creation remains in the early stages of development. According to Ghandehari, it typically takes 16 to 17 years for a drug-delivery method to reach patients.

"We haven't actually loaded the cages with chemotherapy drugs and put them in an animal model yet," Robinson said. "Right now they are synthesized. We have loaded things into them and put a polymer on them."

The testing, Robinson said, probably will take place in a month to two months.

Robinson's plans include graduate school and, ideally, creating nanotechnology companies around the nation.

"My eventual plan is to be able to start up nanotech companies, help them grow and then move on to something else," he said. "It will probably be focused in medical-type-based nanotechnology, but it doesn't have to be."

Striking gold

R Ryan Robinson, a senior bioengineering major at the University of Utah and former valedictorian at Taylorsville High, won first place in a national nanotechnology competition for his work on gold nano cages.

The gold nano cages are about 1/1,000th the size of a human hair and contain chemotherapy that can be released directly into a tumor.