Hopkins gets in on something very small

New institute hopes to be at forefront of nanobiotechnology


Small is the next big thing.

The makers of vacuum cleaners are employing minute particles to create bacteria-resistant filters to suck up dirt more effectively. Scientists are working with tiny tools to manipulate individual strands of DNA. And cosmetics companies are putting microscopic moisturizing beads in their creams - so small that thousands of them could fit in the period at the end of this sentence.

From consumer goods to new energy sources to medical applications, the nano-market is expected to become a $1 trillion industry during the next decade, according to the National Science Foundation.

The Johns Hopkins University hopes to be at the forefront with its new Institute for NanoBioTechnology, which officially launches Monday. A coalition of more than 100 faculty and staff members will focus on solving medical problems by manipulating the tiniest of instruments and organisms.

In the making for the past 18 months, the institute is one of dozens of such efforts cropping up at universities and organizations across the country dedicated to the emerging field of nanotechnology and subsections like Hopkins' nanobiotechnology. That science, some say, might eventually allow the engineering of organisms in such a way that a doctor could direct a drug to specific diseased cells, wait for it to report back and then tell it how to go to work.

"It's the next frontier," said Denis Wirtz, associate director of Hopkins' new venture.

In 2000, five universities - including Howard and Princeton - banded together to create the Nanobiotechnology Center on Cornell's New York campus. A year later, the University of South Carolina opened its Nanocenter. Last year, Northwestern University opened a $34 million nano-manufacturing facility.

And today, the University of Maryland, College Park's nearly two-year-old NanoCenter is holding its first NanoDay, a festival highlighting the center's developments, including a new undergraduate minor in nano science and technology.

Nanotechnology began a decade or more ago, growing from advances in microscope development. This science of manipulating matter at the molecular level has gained attention as products containing tiny nano-particles have begun to hit the market and spur a debate over how the field should be regulated.

The discipline has attracted both praise and criticism from groups who see it as either the future of medicine or a development too little understood to be explored safely. Some fear nano-particles could infiltrate the skin and lungs, and wreak unimaginable havoc.

"We can actually make materials that behave in a different way, we can call into play quantum physics and use it to our advantage," said Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington. "There's an obvious question about whether there are new or unconventional risks" associated with that.

Those involved in launching Hopkins' effort hope the university's mix of resources, particularly in medicine and public health, will give it an edge. Their intent is to engineer disease therapies and tools while gathering information about the health and environmental effects of using such particles, which are measured in nanometers - each of which is 1 billionth of a meter, or roughly the size of four atoms.

M-0"Our mission is world domination, literally, to be the world leader in nanobiotechnology," the institute's director, Peter Searson, said this week while standing in his basement laboratory.

Searson and Wirtz saw a need for a multidisciplinary approach to nanobiotechnology. They assembled a proposal for the institute, corralled a steering committee of colleagues and secured $6 million, which includes seed money for nanobiotech proposals.

They are now set to throw open the doors - figuratively speaking.

The institute, which functions more like a network, has no official offices.

"We would need to build a new campus" because there are so many people involved, Searson said.

Key to the institute's success, he said, is the involvement of multiple people over many disciplines. Engineers, clinicians, scientists and medical doctors have all signed on volunteering their time. Other components of the institute include plans to create Web-based training courses in nanobiotechnology for industry professionals and the creation of graduate and undergraduate programs.

"Hopkins is a natural for having a nanobiotech initiative because of their strength in medicine. ... I think this is exactly the right direction for them to go," said Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the state's Department of Business and Economic Development. "Nanotech and certainly nanobiotech, we think, is the next big thing."


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