The past, present, and future of nanomedicine

by Angela Herring

Each year, nearly $18 bil­lion is spent on nanomed­i­cine research. But since the field’s incep­tion more than a decade ago, little of that research, though promising, has been suc­cess­fully trans­lated into com­mer­cial products.

Last weekend, more than 150 stu­dents, researchers, and industry experts from around the world con­vened to dis­cuss the chal­lenges accounting for this fact, strate­gies for over­coming it, and a few suc­cess sto­ries. The first annual Inter­na­tional Trans­la­tional Nanomed­i­cine Con­fer­ence was hosted by North­eastern and spon­sored by the Inter­na­tional Journal of Nanomed­i­cine. Plans are underway for the second annual con­fer­ence, which would be held at North­eastern next summer.

“The con­fer­ence rein­forced the fact that nanomed­i­cine research is still incred­ibly active and ripe for forming prod­ucts,” said event orga­nizer Thomas Web­ster, pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering.

The tox­i­city of nanopar­ti­cles has remained incon­clu­sive, Web­ster said, pro­viding per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant road­block to bringing nanomed­ical research advances to the market. But through dili­gent inves­ti­ga­tions, researchers are begin­ning to chip away at that barrier.

Web­ster, the founding editor of IJN, pre­sented the journal’s annual Young Inves­ti­gator award to Carlos Rinaldi of the Uni­ver­sity of Florida, whose accep­tance speech chal­lenged the cur­rent par­a­digm that heat deliv­ered by mag­netic nanopar­ti­cles is only effec­tive at killing cancer cells above a cer­tain temperature.

Rinaldi showed that heat may not be the only factor by cre­ating nanopar­ti­cles that don’t sur­pass that tem­per­a­ture threshold but still kill cancer cells effec­tively. He said the par­ti­cles’ mechan­ical actions seem to be the actual culprit.

In his IJN Editor’s Ple­nary Talk, Web­ster dis­cussed his own group’s use of heat or other energy sources to con­trol bac­te­rial infec­tions in implants. Their results demon­strate the par­ti­cles are effec­tive but the under­lying mech­a­nisms remain a mystery.

“If we don’t even under­stand the mech­a­nism of how things are working, how are we going to con­vince the FDA to insert our mate­rials,” said Web­ster. His team is already making plans to test Rinaldi’s mech­a­nism in the killing action of nanopar­ti­cles on bac­te­rial cells.

Another of the conference’s pre­sen­ta­tions focused on the work of a con­sor­tium of South Korean researchers who are exam­ining nanopar­ticle tox­i­city using what Web­ster described as the most trans­la­tional approach to date. The group’s studies found little health effects fol­lowing expo­sure to com­mer­cial nanomed­i­cine prod­ucts at clin­i­cally rel­e­vant doses. Web­ster noted that though the work still requires more research, it holds sig­nif­i­cant promise for the field.

If the tox­i­city ques­tion can be answered, treat­ments like the one pre­sented by Man­soor Amiji, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor and Chair of the Depart­ment of Phar­ma­ceu­tical Sci­ences, may be within reach. His team pre­sented a new nanopar­ticle delivery system for bringing rheuma­toid arthritis drugs directly to the affected cells. The results were astounding, he explained, restoring unhin­dered joint mobility to animal test sub­jects that had been inca­pable of walking.

Other mem­bers of the North­eastern com­mu­nity who spoke at the con­fer­ence included Edgar Goluch, an assis­tant pro­fessor of chem­ical engi­neering, and Sri Sridhar, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics and director of the university’s IGERT Nanomed­i­cine Sci­ence and Tech­nology pro­gram. Sridhar pro­posed the idea of a global nanomed­i­cine academy, sparking con­ver­sa­tions about the field and its researchers’ col­lec­tive future. Goluch dis­cussed his team’s lab-​​on-​​a-​​chip plat­form for iden­ti­fying bac­teria at extremely low concentrations.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on July 31, 2013

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