Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Promising nanotechnology researchers draw NU grants

Zapping tumors with particles 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. Fitting an entire genetic code on a computer chip. Rebuilding immune systems with stem cells taken from blood.

These innovations might sound like science fiction, but a Northwestern incubator program for such “high-risk” bioengineering projects will begin doling out its second round of funding in April. The idea is for scientists to collect preliminary data needed to apply for larger research grants that could lead to marketable products.

“It is fairly difficult to get funding without having preliminary data,” biomedical engineering Prof. Phillip Messersmith said. “You can have the greatest idea, but if you have no preliminary data when you apply for a federal grant, you’re going to get shut out.”

NU’s Institute for Bioengineering and Nanoscience in Advanced Medicine provides start-up funding between $20,000 and $50,000 for innovative research projects.

The interdisciplinary research program, known as IBNAM, will be housed in the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center on the Chicago Campus. But IBNAM research will continue around both campuses, as the institute draws professors from McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Feinberg School of Medicine.

“The solutions will require the collaboration of many different kinds of people,” said Samuel Stupp, director of IBNAM. “Biologists will play a role, engineers will play a role, chemists will play a role.”

IBNAM already has doled out funding to 14 research groups this year, providing a catalyst for biomedical research performed on nanoscale objects, ranging from regenerative medicine to stem cell therapies.

Nanoscience examines matter at the atomic and molecular levels. Its basic unit of measurement, the nanometer, is one billionth of a meter. For example, the dot over the letter “i” measures more than one million nanometers in diameter.

One team has built nano-sized chips with genetic codes organized on them, integrating computer chip technology with genetics. Scientists are binding DNA strands to silicon plates, a process which will allow doctors to map a patient’s entire genome sequence using a drop of blood, materials science Prof. Mark Hersam said.

“The more spots you have on a chip, the greater sequences you can detect,” Hersam said. “Now we’re really going to push the chemistry to its limit.”

Scientists also are developing a cancer therapy that heats tumors, called intracellular hyperthermia. Stable nanoparticles bind with cancer cells so they can heat and destroy tumors in an alternating magnetic field, Messersmith said. The magnetic particles the treatment uses contain either graphite-coated metals or magnetite, a form of rust, and are coated with a harmless polymer to prevent the body’s immune system from recognizing and attacking the particles.

Cancer cell surfaces look different from normal cells. For example, breast tumors contain receptors that attract folic acid. By tagging the particles with folic acid, researchers produce a particle that will be identified and internalized by cancer cells, Messersmith said.

Reducing the particle size to 50 nanometers generates a single magnetic field that releases heat through friction. The group is working to expand the technology to diagnostic imaging, Messersmith said.

In other laboratories, NU engineers and physicians are expanding the number of blood stem cells to boost transplant patients’ protection against infection.

Stem cells are forerunners of all other cells. But cell expansion causes them to differentiate into other cells irreversibly, said Bill Miller, chairman of the chemical engineering department.

Stem cells attach to other cells and proteins. By fixing tiny particles to a glass surface, NU scientists are dividing stem cells without triggering a change in the cell type, Messersmith added.

“If you take (the cells) out of this environment, they’re not happy,” Messersmith said. “If you make a surface that fools them into thinking that they are in their natural environment, they can divide and expand without differentiating.

“This cell is going to think, ‘OK, I’m in my native environment here and I’m going to be happy with that,'” he added.

Feinberg Prof. Jane Winter has performed this transplant therapy on three patients whose infection-fighting white blood cells were at low levels after bone marrow transplants. But she said the group has struggled to harvest enough blood stem cells from transplant patients and donors.

NU scientists have not gone so far as to do research work with embryonic stem cells, which have sparked ethical debates regarding the use of genetic material from human embryos and cloning. However, stem cell biology has little to do with human cloning, added Stupp, a professor of materials science and chemistry.

Extracting stem cells from “stem cell savings accounts” such as fatty tissues and umbilical cords provides the foundation for advanced medical therapies, Stupp said.

“We will be able to make progress in our research … before it is critical that we have access to human stem cells,” he added.

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Promising nanotechnology researchers draw NU grants