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Chad Mirkin Receives $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for Invention

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June 24, 2009 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University researcher Chad Mirkin, one of the world’s leaders in nanotechnology research and its application, has been awarded the prestigious 2009 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.

For Mirkin, good things come in small packages -- specifically one billionth of a meter in size. Yet the impact of Mirkin’s work is anything but small. A prolific inventor and entrepreneur, his innovations have the potential to transform the future of medical diagnostics and patient point-of-care and to ignite change across many industries, from semiconductors to health care.

The Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes outstanding inventors. Mirkin, George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern, is being honored for his revolutionary discoveries and sizeable contributions to science and invention.

He will accept the prize and make a presentation about his work Friday, June 26, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the Lemelson-MIT Program’s third annual EurekaFest, a multi-day celebration of the inventive spirit, taking place June 25 to 27.

A leader in the burgeoning field of nanotechnology, Mirkin is the author of 380 manuscripts and more than 350 patents and applications. He currently is listed as the third most-cited chemist over the last decade and the most-cited nanomedicine researcher in the world. Mirkin also is professor of medicine, chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering.

Mirkin, who recently was named to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is best known for the invention, development and commercialization of two revolutionary technologies: the nanoparticle-based medical diagnostic assays underlying the FDA-approved Verigene IDTM system, and Dip-Pen Nanolithography, an ultra-high-resolution molecule-based printing technique.

Both inventions were born, in part, out of Northwestern’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, funded by the National Science Foundation, and were conceived, managed and directed by Mirkin. His research at the University, with the help of Northwestern graduate students and colleagues, has formed the basis of several start-up companies that are helping to bring his inventions from the lab to the market.

Current medical diagnostic tools make it challenging to detect molecules circulating in the human bloodstream that provide early warning signs of disease. Mirkin invented a highly precise method of identifying low concentrations of disease-signifying molecules. “In the case of proteins, the test can be thousands of times more sensitive than any commercial protein detection system out there and has the power to revolutionize medical diagnostics,” Mirkin said.

He cofounded Nanosphere, Inc. with colleague Robert Letsinger, professor emeritus of chemistry at Northwestern, to commercialize many of the nanoparticle-based medical diagnostic assays invented in their laboratories. Nanosphere recently launched the Verigene ID™ System, a low-cost medical diagnostic system that can test patients for several different disease targets at the same time, on-site in a research laboratory or in a community hospital, with results in under an hour. The point-of-care technology is poised to decentralize the medical diagnostics industry.
 
Mirkin’s work with nanostructures made of gold continues to lead to new ventures, including the recent founding of Aurasense, a company focused on developing a novel class of nanotherapeutics that are nontoxic and extremely effective in gene regulation for application in oncology and heart disease.

Printing is the cornerstone for many core technologies, including information transfer, electronics, medical diagnostics and drug discovery. Modern microfabrication processes have made printing on the microscopic scale widely accessible. The challenge of creating flexible tools that allow one to print on the nanoscopic scale led Mirkin to invent Dip-Pen Nanolithography (DPN).

This technology, licensed by the company NanoInk, can be used to print features of proteins, DNA and other biological materials on surfaces with sub-50 nanometer resolution. Commercialized in the form of the NscriptorTM, it has become a novel research tool, allowing scientists to better understand how cells interact with surfaces and function, the chemical and physical consequences of miniaturization, and how structures -- including individual viruses -- behave at the single-particle level.

This knowledge is important for learning how viruses infect cells, understanding the chemical and physical differences between a healthy cell and a cancerous cell, and discovering the genetic code associated with a new flu virus -- all of which could lead to new therapeutics and diagnostics. DPN’s applications extend even further than this to highly miniaturized polymer- and molecular-based electronics.

Mirkin’s latest invention, Polymer-Pen Lithography, which uses millions of polymer-based tips, is designed to cover a larger surface area and has more commercial applications ranging from computational tools, medical diagnostics like gene chips, and pharmaceutical discovery through combinatorial biomolecule arrays for screening drug candidates.
 
Mirkin also serves as a role model and leader for aspiring young scientists and inventors. Through work with the International Institute for Nanotechnology, Mirkin and his colleagues devise innovative science programs around the country to educate youth, including the development of the DiscoverNANO Web site that introduces young people to nanotechnology. Currently, Mirkin also is working with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry to complete a hands-on nanotechnology exhibit.

Jerome H. Lemelson, one of U.S. history’s most prolific inventors, and his wife, Dorothy, founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation. The foundation’s programs in the U.S. and developing countries recognize and celebrate accomplished inventors; provide financial and mentoring support to grassroots inventors; offer hands-on opportunities that enable young people to develop their scientific curiosity; and disseminate technologies that improve people’s lives.
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