Professors Monica Olvera de la Cruz and Sam Stupp typify the faculty collaboration so essential for nanotechnology breakthroughs. Stupp's research on self-assembling molecules led Olvera de la Cruz to new theories on what causes materials to self-assemble into complex mushroom-like structures.

Photo by Bill Arsenault

Crossing New Frontiers:
Nanoscience and Medicine

“There are many important problems in health care that the public would like to see solved,” says Samuel Stupp, Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and of Chemistry and a professor of medicine. “Detecting and stopping cancer at earlier stages, regenerating tissues and organs, preventing diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes, and slowing down the aging process are a few. To succeed, we need to create new partnerships between medicine and technology.”

With increasing understanding of molecular biology and new developments in nanotechnology, Northwestern is in a strong position to push medicine forward. Last year the University established the interdisciplinary Institute for Biomedicine and Nanoscience in Advanced Medicine and named Stupp (GMcC77) its director. 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.

“Northwestern is particularly poised to embrace nanotechnology in the areas of cancer and genetics,” says J. Larry Jameson, Irving S. Cutter Professor and chair of the Feinberg School’s Department of Medicine. “When completed in 2004, the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center will house IBNAM, along with the Lurie Cancer Center and the Center for Genetic Medicine. The proximity, coupled with the scientific opportunities, is a powerful formula for research and discovery that can be translated into medicine.”

Scientists, engineers and physicians from the Chicago and Evanston campuses already are tackling major medical problems together, with particular emphasis on the creation of nanoscale gene chips (probes that identify genes and mutations), targeted drug delivery and regenerative medicine. To support efforts in these areas and others, the institute has established an incubator program for innovative, high-risk research by teams of two or three investigators. Funding is secured for three years.

“Future nanoscale gene chips could contain 10,000 times more information than conventional gene chips,” says Mark Hersam, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, who is working on this problem. “The hope is that one day you could give a blood sample and find out your entire genetic code the same day.” The Human Genome Project, which decoded one genome, took 10 years.

IBNAM members also are addressing a major concern with drug therapy: the negative side effects that often accompany medication’s curative powers. The development of nanostructures that travel to specific tissues to deliver drugs could help eliminate toxic effects, such as those associated with chemotherapy.

After his daughter was paralyzed in a skiing accident, John Kessler, Benjamin and Virginia T. Boshes Professor and chair of the Department of Neurology, shifted his research to spinal cord injury and linked up with Stupp in the area of regenerative medicine. This critical collaboration, in which synthetic scaffolds are being developed to encourage nerve regeneration, involves chemistry labs in Evanston, where nanoscale materials are made, and labs in the Feinberg School, where the biological work is done.

“Interdisciplinary research requires untraditional connections among scientists and clinicians,” says Stupp, who loves to work at the interface between biology, physical sciences and engineering. “That’s what this institute is all about.” — M.F.

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