HOUSTON -- (Dec. 10, 2009) -- One of the promises of nanomedicine is the design of tiny particles that can home in on diseased cells and get inside them. Nanoparticles can carry drugs into cells and tag cells for MRI and other diagnostic tests; and they may eventually even enter a cell's nucleus to repair damaged genes. Unfortunately, designing them involves as much luck as engineering.
"Everything in nanomedicine right now is hit-and-miss as far as the biological fate of nanoparticles," said Rice University bioengineering researcher Jennifer West. "There's no systematic understanding of how to design a particle to accomplish a certain goal in terms of where it goes in a cell or if it even goes into a cell."
West's lab and 11 others in the Texas Medical Center -- including three at Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative -- are hoping to change that, thanks to a $3 million Grand Opportunity (GO) grant from the National Institutes of Health. NIH established the GO grant program with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
One problem facing scientists today is that nanoparticles come in many shapes and sizes and can be made of very different materials. Some nanoparticles are spherical. Others are long and thin. Some are made of biodegradable plastic and others of gold, carbon or semiconducting metals. And sometimes size -- rather than shape or material -- is all-important.
West demonstrates this using a video on her computer that was created by Rice GO grant investigator Junghae Suh. The movie was created by snapping an image with a microscope every few seconds. In the video, dozens of particles move about inside a cell. Half of the particles are tagged with a red fluorescent dye and move very slowly. The rest are green and zip from place to place.
"These are made of the same material and have the same chemistry," said West, Rice's Isabel C. Cameron Professor and department chair of Bioenginee
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