The University of Massachusetts Amherst is host to a new nanomedicine institute focused on developing super-tiny structures for biomedical research. The institute was launched with $200,000 in start-up funds from UMass President Jack M. Wilson's Science and Technology Initiatives Fund and the President's Creative Economy Fund. Researchers involved with the institute are developing novel nanostructures for use in medical diagnostics and therapeutics, including tools for removing blood pathogens and helping the immune system fight malaria.
An important goal of the institute is to train students in the emerging field of nanomedicine and team with industry to transfer developed technology, stimulating manufacturing and economic opportunities in the region.
The institute is an interdisciplinary collaboration among 12 researchers from UMass Amherst, the UMass Medical School and UMass Lowell. UMass Amherst scientists T.J. Lakis Mountziaris and Surita Bhatia of chemical engineering and Eicke Latz from the UMass Medical School are co-directors. Zhiyong Gu serves as the liaison with the UMass Lowell faculty. The institute is one of 14 faculty projects in the UMass system recently funded though the President's Science and Technology Initiatives Fund and the President's Creative Economy Fund.
"Massachusetts is an ideal location for this kind of research because of the history in work related to biotechnology, medicine and medical devices," says Mountziaris, the principal investigator from UMass Amherst and head of the department of chemical engineering. "We also have a unique strength in nanotechnology." Several of the UMass Amherst faculty involved in the institute do related work at UMass Amherst's MassNanoTech Institute and the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center on Hierarchical Manufacturing.
The institute will initially concentrate on three research areas: engineering fluorescent nanostructures that can be used for tagging proteins to aid in understanding the immune system; engineering of magnetic nanoparticles to remove pathogens such as viruses from blood; and developing biodegradable nanostructures that can help train the immune system to recognize and respond to the malaria parasite.
Research at the institute aims to make the next generation of medical diagnostic instruments more portable, more sensitive and amenable to smaller samples, says Mountziaris, who is involved in the fluorescent tagging research. His group aims to develop fluorescent nanocrystals that will help researchers detect and diagnose certain conditions or diseases, even when they only have a tiny sample of material to work with.
Mountziaris likens the evolution of computing technology to that of clinical diagnostic technology. Computing technology has evolved over the past few decades from very large mainframe computers to tiny portable devices that can be stored in a pocket. "Anything that is happening now in clinical diagnostics can actually be happening in a more efficient and miniaturized way with better detection media," he says.
"What will revolutionize medical testing are completely portable diagnostic instruments that can be taken to the point of carea doctor's office, somebody's home or a remote village," Mountziaris says. "This type of testing will have a significant impact on healthcare delivery in the developing world."
Mountziaris is collaborating with Latz in a project to develop novel biosensors for immune stimulants in patient fluids. The ability to image infectious or inflammatory processes in cells will enable a better understanding of disease processes and could aid in the delivery of personalized medical care.
The institute will also focus on engineering magnetic nanoparticles that can be selectively attached to viruses or other pathogens in the blood of a patient. The patient's blood will be gradually withdrawn and mixed with the engineered particles, then, using a magnetic field, the viruses will be separated from the bloodstream and the purified blood returned to the body. Robert Finberg from the UMass Medical School is leading this effort. The method could be particularly useful in treating patients suffering from chronic viral diseases and will provide insights on how to refine the blood of chronically ill patients from a variety of toxins.
The third research thrust of the institute aims to develop biodegradable nanoparticles to train the immune system to recognize certain "stealth" parasites that are hard for the body's defense system to detect in the early stages of an infection. The initial focus is on the malaria parasite, which is the number-one killer in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, especially for children below the age of five. Douglas Golenbock from the UMass Medical School is leading this effort.