New WMU Focus Nanobiotech

January 23, 2004
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KALAMAZOO — Two undergraduate and two graduate students will help senior Western Michigan University researchers investigate how cells give admission to viruses, toxins and pollutants.

And, in doing the microscopic-level work, they will be using a device called a laser tweezers.

According to Subra Muralidharan, an associate professor of chemistry who will lead the project, the mechanism by which foreign substances pass into cells is poorly understood.

But he said gaining that understanding is critical to permit carefully targeted cellular-level drug delivery — one of the hopes of medicine that’s on the horizon — as well as understanding how viruses, pollutants and toxins disrupt cell functions.

The students involved in the project will be designated W.M. Keck Scholars because the project is being funded with a $500,000 grant from California’s W.M. Keck Foundation. Western will match the $500,000 from the Keck Foundation with a similar amount from the President’s Unrestricted Fund, bringing the total funding for the research initiative to $1 million.

The Keck Foundation notified Western that it made the medical research awards to the university’s Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center that Muralidharan directs.

The award is for a two-year basic research project expected to make a fundamental contribution to a wide range of scientific disciplines.

“We are delighted to have the opportunity to partner with the W.M. Keck Foundation to carry out research that so closely fits both WMU’s mission and the goals of the Foundation’s grant program,” said WMU President Judith I. Bailey.

“Not only will this research provide critical information for the medical and health sciences — with obvious implications for our work in biosciences commercialization — it also will be carried out in a way that is really emblematic of our focus on student-centered research,” she said.

“Both undergraduate and graduate students will be essential to completing this research, and they will work closely with some of our most talented faculty researchers.”

The President’s Unrestricted Fund consists of private donations for the president to use in advancing the goals of the institution.

WMU’s research team, which will include the four Keck scholars, will delve into the mechanisms that allow the transport of materials across a cell membrane.

Though Muralidharan says knowledge of how foreign substances enter cells is vague, one thing is known for sure.

He said the process, called transportation, involves creation of a temporary, fast-closing hole in the cell membrane. He labeled the mechanics of the brief portal a function of line tension, which he calls the one-dimensional equivalent of surface tension.

“We’ve proposed some novel experimental approaches to directly measure line tension,” Muralidharan said. 

“Laser tweezers and scanning electrochemical microscopy will be used to measure line tension in a number of both natural and synthetic substances,” he said. 

Understanding line tension, he asserts, will have an enormous impact on biology and nanotechnology, and the knowledge will be critical to the development of targeted drug delivery systems. 

Such novel, nanoscale drug delivery systems are a major focus of WMU’s new Biosciences Research and Commercialization Center, established late last year with a $10 million award from the state of Michigan.

WMU’s Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center is a cornerstone of the new commercialization initiative, and the line tension research is expected to lead to collaborative research projects with major pharmaceutical companies.

Working with Muralidharan will be Yirong Mo and Dongil Lee of WMU’s department of chemistry, and Brian Tripp and Karim Essani of the department of biological sciences.

The research team will use the funding to purchase and build research instruments. 

These will be placed in the newly designated W.M. Keck Nanotechnology Laboratory in the WMU College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 

Along with the two undergraduate and two graduate students, the Keck grant also will support a postdoctoral research associate. 

The research associate will be known as the W.M. Keck Research Fellow and will be responsible for building a laser tweezers, setting up the Keck laboratory and acting as a mentor to the four students.

The W.M. Keck Foundation is one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations. 

Established in 1954 by the late William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Co., the Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on the areas of medical research, science and engineering.

The Foundation also maintains a program for liberal arts colleges and a Southern California Grant Program that provides support in the areas of civic and community services, with a special emphasis on children.

WMU’s Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center was established in 2002.

Its focus is nanobioenvironmental chemistry. Researchers with the center have gained the support of such funding organizations as Pfizer Corp., the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor, Argonne National Laboratory, the Xerox Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. 

The center also has collaborative relationships with Xerox Corp. and Nevada-based Altair Nanomaterials.           

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