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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 8, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 33
Aiming small, thinking big

Heading up the institute for NanoBioTechnology will be Peter Searson, Director, and Denis Wirtz, associate Director.

NanBioTechnology Institute will involve 75-plus faculty members

By Phil Sneiderman

Johns Hopkins is preparing to aim enormous research and educational resources at some exceedingly small targets. Drawing on the expertise of more than 75 faculty members from such diverse disciplines as engineering, biology, medicine and public health, the university will officially launch its new Institute for NanoBioTechnology on Monday, May 15, with a celebration featuring prominent speakers.

The event, to be held on the Homewood campus, will call attention to an ambitious effort to achieve major advances in medicine by developing new diagnostic tools and treatments based on interdisciplinary research conducted at the atomic or molecular level. The institute will encourage the movement of these campus breakthroughs into the private sector for further development and marketing. At the same time, institute members will train the next generation of scientists and engineers in this emerging field, offering both graduate-level instruction and a new undergraduate minor in nanobiotechnology.

"Our goal is to establish Johns Hopkins as the world's top research center for nanobiotechnology," said Peter Searson, a professor of materials science and engineering who is director of the institute. "We plan to do this in a way that integrates research, education and technology transfer."

The institute is being launched with $6 million in funding and the participation of dozens of faculty members from the Whiting School of Engineering, the School of Medicine, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Denis Wirtz, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who is the institute's associate director, said, "In terms of the number of affiliated researchers, we believe this is the largest institute ever formed at Hopkins."

The institute will make use of existing laboratory space on the Homewood and medical campuses. Its startup funding has been provided by the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, NASA and various Johns Hopkins divisions. Additional financial support is being sought.

Searson said he was particularly grateful to Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who helped secure some of the startup funding and has expressed strong support for the institute.

The opening celebration will begin at 4 p.m. in Hodson Hall Auditorium. Nicholas P. Jones and Edward Miller, deans of the engineering and medical schools, will welcome the attendees. Speakers will include Searson and Aristides Melissaratos, a Johns Hopkins graduate who is secretary of the Maryland Department of Economic Development.

The program will also feature a panel discussion moderated by Wirtz and including Peter N. Devreotes, director of the Department of Cell Biology in the School of Medicine; Martin G. Pomper, associate professor in that school's Department of Radiology; and Jonathan M. Links, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health.

The celebration will conclude with a reception in the first-floor lobby of Hodson Hall. Faculty members, students and others who plan to attend are encouraged to RSVP by calling 410-516-8723 or by visiting the institute's Web site at The celebration will salute the institute researchers who will toil at the scientific frontier where nanotechnology, a field that is perhaps 15 years old, is applied to biology and medicine. This emerging field, nanobiotechnology, is barely a decade old. Hopkins is the ideal setting for such a far-reaching effort, organizers say, because it is one of the few institutions in the world that can bring together world-class expertise in the many disciplines needed to study and test biological components smaller than a human cell and to fabricate materials and devices that can operate at this scale.

The scale is astonishingly small. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. By comparison, a single strand of human hair is roughly 50,000 to 80,000 nanometers wide. Some of the projects envisioned by institute researchers involve manipulation of a single molecule or a fragment of protein.

Institute members will work within four key research areas:

Diagnostics, including the development of molecular imaging probes that can relay information about the health of a patient's organs and other tissues without the need for a biopsy. Advances in this area promise to greatly enhance the way diseases are diagnosed and treated.

Therapeutics, including nanoscale forms of drug delivery, gene therapy, protein therapy and immunotherapy. These will be used to treat diseases such as cancer and asthma and conditions such as spinal cord injuries.

Cellular and molecular dynamics, including the use of powerful new tools to study the inner working of cells. This knowledge should help identify causes of disease and new molecular targets that could help cure medical disorders.

Health and environment, a research thrust that will use the new tools and techniques of nanobiotechnology in understanding the potential impact of nanotechnology on public health and the environment.

The institute's organizers say its greatest strength will be its ability to tackle complex medical problems by drawing on an array of Johns Hopkins experts with widely different skills. For example, a new therapy for cystic fibrosis might begin with tiny polymer particles developed by chemistry experts, carrying medications developed by biologists. These researchers may collaborate with fluid mechanics experts to find the most effective way to get these particles into the lungs. Surface scientists, toxicologists and other medical experts would assist in getting these particles through the lungs' mucus barrier and into the appropriate cells without endangering the patient.

"We envision this institute providing research coordination, seed funding and lab facilities for projects like these," Searson said.


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