Seminar Visits the Intersection of Nanotechnology and Medicine

By Kate Fink

Bjorn Reinhard
Bjorn Reinhard

Nanotechnology becomes medicine when tiny particles can seek out cancerous tumors or miniature envelopes of drugs can be delivered to precise addresses within the body to release their cargo. Some such high-tech medicines are already in use and many more are the subject of nanomedicine research in laboratories across the country.

The Emerging Technologies Seminar Series at the College of Engineering brought together nanotechnology experts from academia, industry and government to discuss, “Nanotechnology in Medicine: From Diagnostics to Therapeutics,” on Friday, April 4. The seminar was co-organized by the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and the School of Medicine.

“The union of nanotechnology and medicine will likely affect our lives in ways we cannot yet understand,” said Andrei Ruckenstein, associate provost and vice president for research.

Linda Molnar, program officer of the National Cancer Institute, discussed some of the laboratories funded by the NCI’s $144.3 million Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer initiative. The program funds Stanford researchers studying how to use nanoparticles for monitoring tumor markers in the body. It also supports researchers at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital seeking new biomarkers to detect prostate cancer earlier and more accurately than is possible today.

“There are a lot of nanotherapeutics in development; we need to try to solve this problem in many ways,” said Molnar. “I do believe if we work together and use these technologies we can have personalized disease prevention from when you’re a child.”

Several researchers from BU, MIT and Northeastern University also presented their work in the field.

Associate Professor Joyce Wong (BME) discussed her research coupling targeted nanoparticles with other diagnostic tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify risky plaques in blood vessels.

“Sixty percent of women and 50 percent of men who die of cardiovascular disease had no previous symptoms,” she said. “What you really want to do is move detection much, much earlier.”

While Wong focuses on early detection, Associate Professor Mark Grinstaff (BME) aims to improve the targeted delivery of drugs using dendrimers. These many-branched molecules can hold drugs in their nooks and crannies, shielding the medicine from the body until the drugs reach the intended site of action, such as a cancer tumor. 

Bjorn Reinhard, assistant professor of chemistry at BU, spoke about molecular rulers he makes to detect the DNA, RNA and protein interactions within cells. Additional presenters included Michael Cima of MIT, Mansoor Amiji from Northeastern University, Omid Farokhzad from Harvard Medical School, and Vladimir Torchilin of Northeastern University. 

A panel discussion of venture capitalists capped off the day, with discussion focusing on the bigger picture of nanomedicine development.

“There’s a beautiful set of circumstances when an idea germinates into a company – the vision, the science, the employees -- Boston is unique in having that,” said Amir Nashat, a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners.

The panelists expressed enthusiasm for the application of nanotechnology to medical problems and the promise it holds for effective, personalized medicine. But, as with any new technology, it presents challenges and risks, such as the possibility of toxicity.

“Nanotechnology is complex technology. We need to make it simple, scalable,” said Alan Crane, president and CEO of Tempo Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and a venture partner at Polaris. “It’s not just about getting drug in the tumor. Even then, it’s still hard to cure cancer. It’s thinking about what are the multiple biological processes going on. These tumors are really smart. How can we knock them down and keep them out?”

For more information, visit the Center for Nanoscience and Nanobiotechnology website.

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