A group of seven Northwestern University scientists, engineers and physicians who are tackling two critical health problems — the treatment of paralysis and diabetes — has received $7.5 million over five years from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The grant is part of NIBIB’s Bioengineering Research Partnership (BRP) program. A BRP is a multi-disciplinary research team applying an integrative, systems approach to develop knowledge and methods to prevent, detect, diagnose or treat disease.
The Northwestern researchers, who ultimately would like to help paralyzed people walk again and enable diabetic individuals to lead a normal life without daily treatments or organ donations, are using regenerative medicine as their approach to achieving these goals.
“Regenerative medicine is one of the great biomedical challenges of this century as we seek to regenerate parts of the human body lost to trauma, disease and genetic factors,” said principal investigator Samuel I. Stupp, director of the Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM) at Northwestern. “New technologies from physical sciences and engineering, coupled with knowledge in advanced cell biology, are required to make this happen.”
The BRP team — representing the fields of chemistry, materials science, chemical and biomedical engineering, neurology, endocrinology and transplant surgery — is focusing on a key component of regenerative medicine: synthetic scaffolds and their interactions with cells. Without the development of effective scaffold technologies Stupp doubts significant progress can be made in regenerative medicine.
The six other investigators on the team, who are all affiliated with IBNAM, are Annelise E. Barron, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering; Dixon B. Kaufman, M.D., professor and vice chair for research in the department of surgery; John Kessler, M.D., Benjamin and Virginia T. Boshes Professor and chair of the department of neurology; William Lowe, Jr., M.D., professor and associate chair for research in the department of medicine; Phillip B. Messersmith, associate professor of biomedical engineering; and Lonnie D. Shea, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering.
A scaffold is an artificial matrix that mimics the natural environment around cells in the body. This three-dimensional scaffold must deliver important signals to cells to induce their proliferation and differentiation into specific tissues and organs.
“We want to jump start the cells into the regenerative process by giving them initial cues through the scaffold,” said Stupp, who is Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry and Medicine. “Once the cells are on the right track to regenerate tissue or an organ, the artificial matrix can be programmed to disappear into nutrients as cells elaborate into a natural matrix.”
The scaffolds are being designed at the nanoscale or the microscale, which enables scientists to create smart objects for cell signaling that can reach small spaces in the body. (A nanometer is roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.) Equally important is developing a practical technology to deliver chemically these scaffolds to the appropriate location in a patient. In earlier work, Stupp has already demonstrated the promise of using molecular self-assembly as a delivery method. The idea is to inject into a patient a mix of molecules that will assemble intelligently into a scaffold which, together with cells and growth factors, will promote tissue or organ regeneration. (The injected molecular mix gels in the body to form a functional scaffold in which cells can grow.)
“While we hope some day to reverse paralysis by repairing damage to the central nervous system and to cure diabetes, the multiple scaffold technologies we are developing are fairly generic,” said Stupp. “That increases the likelihood this research will see other uses in regenerative medicine, including cardiovascular and orthopedic applications.”
Headquartered on the Chicago campus, IBNAM is a partnership of the Feinberg School of Medicine, the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. The University established the institute in 2000 to develop new biomedical technologies for advanced medicine.