June 2010

The Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology: Small in Science, but Not in Scope

NRC Publishes Report on Multidisciplinary Research

The term “multidisciplinary science” constantly is evolving— after all, it wasn’t that long ago when merging the fields of biology and chemistry seemed like a radical concept, whereas today, its common to see scientists who equally are well-versed in genetics, biochemistry and cell biology.

However, as the 21st century marches on, another seemingly radical merger is taking shape as the physical sciences become more prevalent in biology. True, some fields like structural biology have employed principles from physics for many years, but now, scientists from many other traditionally “descriptive” biology fields have been heading towards this life sciences-physical sciences interface. This can be seen from the individual lab to whole universities, such as the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology highlighted here.

Recently, the National Research Council has shed more light on this growing convergence through the publication of their report, “Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences.” Prepared by a committee which included American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology President Gregory Petsko, this report presents three main objectives: 1) to provide a framework for understanding the goals of intersection science and why it is worthy of attention from both scientists and funding agencies; 2) to assess current efforts at combining physical and life sciences and suggest some promising opportunities for future efforts; and 3) to set out strategies to enhance collaboration so that researchers can take full advantage of the opportunities at this intersection.

The report is worth a read by any scientist who currently is, or is considering, carrying out work at the physics-biology interface. As a special offer, ASBMB Today readers will receive a 25 percent discount when they order this report here. To take advantage of the special offer, use the discount code “SASBMB” when you enter your payment information during the purchase process.

Also, be sure to check out this month’s special ASBMB Today companion podcast with Petsko as he discusses, among other topics, the NRC report.

This is a vital resource, because, as scientific disciplines go, nanotechnology is a truly integrative field. It may deal with matter at the smallest scale, but the functional interface between biology, chemistry, physics and engineering is immense.

“Think about all the scientific expertise required to develop gold nanoparticles that can deliver targeted drugs to a tumor,” says Wirtz, citing a common nanotech application. “You need clinical researchers who understand tumor physiology, colloid and interface scientists who can design particles that will work in the bloodstream, molecular biologists to perform in vitro studies, imaging experts to track the particles in vivo and toxicologists who can ascertain if the nanoparticles will be poisonous, just to name a few.”

INBT accomplishes its mission of bringing together interested nanoscientists through a variety of efforts. Its website serves as a welcome center and community portal, providing a list of INBT affiliates and their research interests, relevant funding opportunities, a repository of nanotechnology tools that Hopkins researchers have developed and even an online grant submission assistant.

INBT also hosts an annual symposium on campus that highlights emerging areas of nanotechnology research in health and biology, another networking and educational opportunity that Searson notes is one of the most highly attended scientific events at the university.

The institute even runs annual competitions for pilot project programs, awarding seed money to teams of two or more faculty that propose research ideas spanning the biology-physical science interface.

“These awards are great because, in today’s funding environment, especially when dealing with novel and untested techniques, a good idea is simply not enough,” notes American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology member Pamela Zeitlin, a professor of pediatrics at Hopkins who has been one of many clinicians to join up with the INBT. “These days, you need some proof of the principle, and these small seed grants help researchers get that invaluable preliminary data to support larger grants.”

Last year, Zeitlin, who studies the molecular and genetic underpinnings of cystic fibrosis, teamed up with colleague Neeraj Vij and received a project award to study the potential of inhaled nanoparticles to deliver cystic fibrosis drugs directly to the lungs and avoid potential systemic side effects.

As Searson explains, “Hopkins is an ideal institution for researchers who want to explore nanotechnology in biomedicine, and INBT strives to do the utmost to lower the barrier to entry and encourage them to make that effort.”

Starting Small

In fitting with the nontraditional and inclusive nature of INBT, the origin of this institute is quite unusual as well. It wasn’t a grand design unveiled at the presidential-level, a large philanthropic donation or some other top-down development that led to INBT’s formation. Rather, the vision for this integrative center was a grassroots effort, originating with a small group of researchers who saw an opportunity to connect many of Hopkins’ academic strengths.

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