June 2010

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

“The award for the EOC exemplifies how having a coordinated institute has helped Johns Hopkins as a whole,” says Searson. “Denis foresaw that new approaches for cancer could be a big NIH focus in the future, so we helped pave the way for that in some of the projects we supported and in making nanotechnology for cancer the focus of our symposium in 2008.”

“We try to anticipate funding trends,” adds Wirtz, “so, by the time we need to make proposals, we already have teams of scientists with experience in that field, as well as a proven record of working together and training students together, so we set up an unbeatable proposal.”

As to where INBT might make its next major impact, Searson notes that discussions are already underway for future initiatives, although he notes, with a smile, that they are “top secret.”

However, he directs all curious individuals to the annual NanoBio symposium. “Remember, we focused on cancer in our 2008 symposium and soon thereafter developed our EOC proposal,” he says. “So, if you want some clue as to areas we think are important, well, neurobiology was the topic of the 2009 symposium, and just last month, we hosted our 2010 symposium on nanotechnology in public health and the environment.”

As for other future plans, INBT actively is looking at increasing corporate and industry partnerships, a vital link considering the commercial potential of nanotechnology and also preparing for a new 18,000-square-foot headquarters on the Homewood campus. For, while INBT remains a bit nontraditional as research institutes go, Searson and Wirtz acknowledge that it cannot be completely virtual, and a centralized location is important to provide physical interactions, especially among students, that can boost collaboration.

Starting Young

Denis Wirtz’s group has been using a variety of biological and engineering techniques to study the factors affecting the movement and positioning of the microtubule organizing center relative to the cell center.

But, although this future campus space will provide a central hub for the university-wide INBT, the real glue that holds this institute together is its student and postdoctoral workforce— and not just because they do all of the grunt work.

“The students have been instrumental to our success because they play the matchmaker,” Wirtz notes. “They develop the ideas for cross-disciplinary projects that help bring faculty together.”

For example, Wirtz, who employs particle-tracking technology to study cytoskeleton activity and cell movement, recently had a student propose an idea to use these tracking techniques to monitor viral entry into cells. Knowing very little about viral behavior, Wirtz was nervous about the many potential experimental pitfalls. “But, over at the medical school, we have Robert Siciliano, one of the foremost experts on HIV, so I encouraged my student to talk to him, and soon we had set up a joint effort.” Searson and Devreotes, meanwhile, recently have set up their own joint effort to develop a universal method of tagging cell surface receptors using quantum dot technology.

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