At the University, professors in chemistry, physics, engineering and medicine have been performing research in nanotechnology for at least a decade. After successes in receiving grants and discovering new concepts, some researchers say the University should better publicize its developments.

Over the past few years, faculty members have won federal grants supporting research in nanotech – the practice of manipulating, engineering and ultimately understanding the workings of molecular structures.

The Center for Biologic Nanotechnology in the Medical School, created in 1999, recently renewed its three-year contract, receiving about $7.8 million in federal funds to support the center’s multidisciplinary approach.

Research in this area “will develop a whole new area of research that will intersect with virtually all areas: energy, medicine, environmental, and engineering,” said CBN Director James Baker.

We are “probably more multi-interdisciplinary than any other group because we started early,” said Claire Verweij, program manager for the center.

The CBN is not the only University department conducting research in the area. Chemistry Prof. Raoul Kopelman has received a three-year, $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for his research with cancer.

“The aim is to try and destroy cancer cells. Obviously, when you deal with any kind of medication, the idea is to not only kill the bad cells but (to not kill) the good cells. Every medication has side effects, and that means you’re killing good cells. Our real aim is to selectively kill cancer cells without killing the good cells,” said Kopelman, who predicted that in three years he will be able to submit his treatment to the Food and Drug Administration.

The public, some professors contend, is largely unaware of the University’s activities. The Office of the Vice President for Research, though it has supported faculty research, ithas been slow to publicize, they said.

“We should do a better job of presenting (our research activities) to the outside world and let them know the quality work that’s going on at the University,” Baker said.

Last week, OVPR held a meeting with several key faculty members involved in nanotech.

“OVPR’s office is looking to initiate some activities in nanoscience and nanoengineering. They’re just starting to talk about that,” said Sharon Glotzer, a chemical engineering and material-science engineering professor. They are looking to “integrate many activities that are already going on.”

But Glotzer added that any administrative activity is in its formative stages. “The idea is that maybe there’ll be some initiative,” she said.

At CBN, Verweij cited a number of grants the center has received, including a $2 million, three-year grant from the NASA for radiation research and a number of smaller grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.

NASA has granted funds to the University to explore the effects of radiation exposure on the human body. By monitoring white blood cells’ decay, researchers can develop a real-time monitor of radiation exposure, said Baker, a nanotechnology professor.

“NASA wants to go to Mars,” said Nicholas Beeson� senior research associate for the University of Michigan Health System. “(They) are thinking way far ahead, but they are under some funding constraints.”

But the center’s most prominent work is with cancer. Scientists build dendrimers, or polymeric molecules, which comprise nano-devices.

“(Nano-devices) recognize a particular cell site. They report where they are. They deliver a drug passively. (Another) function is that we are able to detect whether or not the cell is living or dead,” Beeson said. Using this technology, researchers have had success in selectively destroying cancer cells in mice.

The College of Engineering also researches in this area.

“In the 11 departments within engineering, I would say that three-fourths are doing research in nanotechnology,” said James MacBain, research relations director for the college.

The implications are numerous, crossing academic disciplines and various sections of public policy. Researchers are using nanotech for environmental reasons, mainly in water purification.

Studying the properties of tiny structures could potentially increase homeland security and defense, researchers said.

Glotzer, who researches “bio-mimetic” or “bio-inspired” nano-materials, said her research could eventually create sensors for pathogens and a form of DNA fingerprinting.

“Nanotechnology has impacts in a large number in fields. But it will also affect the chips that go into your computer. It could affect the materials that you wear for clothing,” applied physics Prof. Brad Orr said.

In spite of all its potential, the technology has its skeptics. The nonprofit Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration – ETC Group – has been an outspoken voice calling for greater government regulation and an evaluation of scientific practices.

The group is concerned with health, the environment and the industry, said Pat Mooney, the group’s executive director. Government regulation has been lax, and technicalities allow new discoveries to enter the market without proper testing, he said.

“We are especially concerned about sunscreens. They are not actually being tested by the FDA because they have been approved at the macro scale,” Mooney said. “Aluminum oxide is used by dentists on the macro-scale. But when you reduce it down the micro-scale, it can actually be explosive.”

The federal government needs to develop specific guidelines toward the new technology. Often, nanomedicines are treated as “instruments” rather than drugs, Mooney added.

The government will also need to revisit patent legislation, complicated by nanotechnologies that cross various industries, Mooney said.

But the University remains steadfast in its commitment to the science, hoping to explore new horizons.

“Nanoscience and nanotechnology is going to be one of the frontiers of the future. It’s going to be a new door that will allow discoveries unimagined at this time,” said Fawwaz Ulaby, vice president for research at OVPR. “It’s all the sciences, engineering and medicine. That is its other appeal, that it crosses many disciplines.”

The NIH shares that perspective, calling nanomedicine one of five “new pathways to discovery” for the 21st century.

Funding to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a multi-agency program created by President Bill Clinton in 2000, will increase 9.5 percent in fiscal year 2004 to $847 million. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 appropriating $2.36 billion over three years to a number of executive agencies. The Senate is considering a similar bill.

 

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