June 2010

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

Peter C. Searson’s lab has been developing cadmium selenide quantum dots (specialized nanoscale semiconductors, pictured here fluorescing under UV light) to visualize and track a variety of molecular processes.  Photo by Rich Folkers at NCI.

The genesis occurred in 2004, when Searson and Wirtz began having informal conversations about some interesting areas where they could expand their research. “And about that time, the National Institutes of Health was discussing nanomedicine as part of their roadmap, and we both agreed that biomedical innovations, particularly in drug delivery and medical imaging, would be significant outlets for nanotechnology,” Searson says. “And Hopkins, which is synonymous with outstanding medical research at both the basic and clinical levels, would provide no shortage of connections for that outlet.”

“But, we decided we wanted something more than just us knocking on some biologists’ doors looking for collaborative projects,” he continues. “We began wondering, how could we make a nanobiology initiative happen on a large scale?”

So, Searson and Wirtz gathered up some other like-minded colleagues, such as ASBMB member Peter N. Devreotes in Hopkins’ department of cell biology.

“I thought the idea Peter and Denis presented was wonderful, though not necessarily because of the nanotechnology angle,” says Devreotes, who serves as part of the INBT executive committee. “After all, molecular biologists have been working at the ‘nano’ scale for more than 30 years.”

“However, our biology faculty has this tremendous resource in the outstanding engineering programs at Hopkins, and developing fruitful collaborations between the two groups would really help us advance basic biomedical knowledge, particularly in getting more quantitative information.”

Over the next two years, the INBT initiative slowly moved up the academic ladder, eventually reaching the level of Hopkins’ president and deans, whom they then managed to convince that setting up a nanobiotechnology institute was worthwhile.

And, four years later, the numbers have rewarded that decision. Not only have more than 200 researchers signed on to this undertaking, including many of this university’s most accomplished members, but INBT also already has generated more than $44 million in federal funding, almost triple the expected amount, given the number of submissions.

Among these many grants is the 5-year/$14.8 million award for the Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center, launched last October as one of the dozen new National Cancer Institute-sponsored Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers, an initiative aimed at pursuing a new avenue of cancer research by studying the physical laws and properties of this disease.

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