Nanotechnology institute formed in St. Louis

Funding from the Missouri Life Sciences Research Fund, part of the 1998 state tobacco settlement, will establish the St. Louis Institute of Nanomedicine Working Group, a collaborative regional effort to apply advances in nanotechnology to the treatment of human diseases.

Nanotechnology refers to materials, structures and devices that are smaller than 100 nanometers, so small that thousands can fit within the dot above the letter “i.” They can be designed to perform useful tasks or functions, including a variety of medical applications.

By bringing together skills and expertise from several area institutions, the institute will promote joint research projects and permit sharing of equipment and other resources. Washington University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University and St. Louis Community College are among the founding members of the new institute.

“The institute will assemble a broad base of regional expertise in nanotechnology, medicine, technology transfer and education to create novel solutions to complex health-care problems,” says Samuel A. Wickline, M.D., who heads the Siteman Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence at Washington University. “It will be an inclusive, open network that will cultivate research and improve the ability to translate scientific discoveries into practical applications.”

Wickline, professor of medicine, of physics, of biomedical engineering and of cell biology and physiology, leads the effort at Washington University along with co-principal investigator Dong Qin, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the Department of Energy, Environment and Chemical Engineering.

Also involved as representatives of the other founding institutions are Jingyue Liu, Ph.D., professor of physics and chemistry and director of the Center for Nanoscience at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; Maulik R. Shah, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Medical Genetics at Saint Louis University Cancer Center; and Richard J. Norris, Ph.D., director of Plant and Life Sciences at St. Louis Community College.

The institute focuses on:

• development and evaluation of new nanotechnologies for health care

• facilitation of commercialization and testing in patients and

• education of a new workforce and of the public at large.

The collaboration will look for ways to apply nanotechnology to early detection of disease through enhanced imaging of the human body. It will explore the use of nanotechnology for diagnosing disease and delivering drugs to targeted locations such as tumors or atherosclerotic plaques. It will also sponsor projects to evaluate the safety of nanotechnology for medical use.

The grant will fund about four pilot projects each year that will conduct research and train undergraduate and graduate students in the field. “The pilot projects will expand the portfolio of nanomedicine ideas and attract new talent to the field, effectively increasing the regional nanomedicine infrastructure,” Wickline says.

Regional research efforts already under way in nanotechnology include synthetic ion channels that function as antibiotics, nanocapsules for targeted drug delivery, nanoparticles that allow imaging of disease sites, and nanosensor imaging arrays to study live cancer cells.

The Missouri General Assembly allocated $13.4 million to the Life Sciences Research Trust Fund in 2007 and 2008. The Life Sciences Trust Fund was established in the 2003 legislative session. It channels 25 percent of the state’s tobacco settlement proceeds into building life-sciences research capacity.

The St. Louis Institute of Nanomedicine Working Group received $1.5 million for three years for its research and education efforts. Ultimately, the group plans to secure additional support for regional nanotechnology research and training efforts so that the nanotechnology enterprise of the region can expand.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Siteman Cancer Center is the only federally designated Comprehensive Cancer Center within a 240-mile radius of St. Louis. Siteman Cancer Center is composed of the combined cancer research and treatment programs of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. Siteman has satellite locations in West County and St. Peters, in addition to its full-service facility at Washington University Medical Center on South Kingshighway.