- Adah Almutairi, Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences
- Ratneshwar Lal, Professor of Bioengineering and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
The Center for Excellence in Nanomedicine and Engineering (CNME) aims to use responsive and smart materials, nanotechnology, and molecular engineering to transform biological research and medicine. Currently, CNME research can be categorized into six areas:
- Drug delivery
Our goal is to develop drug carriers that we can direct to any part of the body, hold them there until they release their payload, then direct them away—all done using a small magnet,” said Ratneshwar Lal, professor of bioengineering, mechanical engineering and materials science in the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. Ratneshwar Lal serves as one of two co-directors for the Center of Excellence for Nano-Medicine and Engineering in the Institute of Engineering in Medicine (IEM) at UC San Diego.
While most in the field approach this by attaching molecules that bind to proteins on target cells, CNME investigators take other innovative approaches. Several labs are developing nanocarriers that allow external control over their location or release of encapsulated molecules (which would also be immensely useful in research, as it offers a non-genetic means of controlling signaling even in intact organisms), while others are exploiting the capabilities of biological materials.
Light-triggered drug release from a polymeric nanoparticle. Nanoparticles made from a light-degradable polymer designed by the Almutairi lab allow on-demand drug release in the eye, which could be used to deliver multiple doses of drugs to treat macular degeneration with a single injection.
Next-generation imaging agents
Current medical imaging technology detects structural changes, such as those caused by tumors that have grown enough to induce rearrangements in surrounding organs. Such changes generally occur late in disease progression, necessitating more aggressive treatments and reducing the chances of success. Earlier diagnosis requires detecting molecular changes that occur earlier; the new field of molecular imaging is focused on this problem.
While molecular imaging has traditionally been the realm of nuclear medicine, CNME researchers are interested in creating tools to enable detection of disease via modalities that do not require ionizing radiation and that afford greater spatial resolution, such as ultrasound, fluorescence, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). By applying the advantages of nano- and microscale structures, engineers within the Center are designing imaging agents with vastly enhanced signal or whose signal can be switched on by the biochemistry of disease.
- Portable diagnostics
Though the term “nanomedicine” is more often associated with drug delivery, nanotechnology also has enormous potential to make ex vivo diagnostics more sensitive and more applicable at the point of care. CNME research in this area encompasses both the development of novel nanomaterials and nanoscale components to improve sensor sensitivity and the design of devices incorporating commercially available nanoparticles. Others within CNME translate existing nanomaterials into small devices to allow rapid biochemical analysis, e.g. tattoo-based glucose sensors for diabetics.
- Tissue engineering
Nanoscale patterning is an essential tool in the creation of structures that match the scale and complexity of those in native tissues. CNME research within this area involves both the improvement of patterning methods, especially for vascularization of engineered tissues, and their application to the development of in vitro tissue models, especially using layered hydrogels to organize neural development.
- In vivo regeneration
Several CNME investigators’ research focuses on regenerative medicine, which is a broad term for the replacement of injured or degenerated tissue, which may involve administration of either exogenous cells or materials or molecules designed to promote formation of new tissue by endogenous cells. While some research in this area involves nano- and microparticles, much of the work at the Center examines how nanoscale properties of materials affect cell fates, which can be used both to generate replacement cells for injection and to inform the design of materials to be administered to sites of disease or damage.
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CNME organizes a seminar series each spring (Wednesdays at noon in the Pharmaceutical Science Building) focused on cutting-edge technologies in delivery of drugs and diagnostics. Sign up for the CNME seminar listserv here.
Several CNME investigators have founded startup companies to develop their technologies, including eLux Medical, Ventrix, Nanocellect, and Electrozyme, or have licensed their discoveries and materials to biotech companies.