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Biosystems Nanotechnology: Big Opportunities in the Science of the Small

By combining engineering and biology, scientists are cultivating career opportunities around the world.

The science of the very small is big business these days, as nanotechnology becomes a huge part of multiple sectors. In particular, scientists, engineers, and clinicians who endeavor to better understand how nanotechnology can impact biological systems—through the use of biosensors, biopharmaceuticals, and biomaterials—are finding abundant opportunities to pursue these investigations in multiple environments. Across the globe, demand is high in biosystems nanotechnology for professionals who speak the language of engineering and biology and have skill sets that include collaborating on diverse teams. By Alaina G. Levine

Photo of Chris Skipwith

Chris Skipwith

Photo: Brooks Canaday, Northeastern University

Chris Skipwith was looking for a way to make his life sciences and physics research more meaningful and move ideas more quickly into therapeutics. With a doctorate in biophysics and experience in pharmaceuticals as a result of a lengthy internship at Merck, he knew that serotonin levels change in patients with thrombosis, which can cause dangerous clots to develop in the bloodstream. Although anti-coagulant medications exist, many of them require regular blood sample collection for monitoring thrombotic risk, and Skipwith saw a problem that he might be able to help solve. He became interested in applying his background in imaging techniques and X-ray crystallography to develop a therapeutic solution that relied on nanotechnology—a real-time biosensor that could continuously and non-invasively monitor someone's blood serotonin, and help them fight off blood clots even before they form. But before he could attack this problem he knew he needed assistance, as he wasn't a nanotech expert.

A lot of countries are focused on physical science applications to biosystems.

Saion Sinha

Photo of Heather Clark

Proactively reach out to leaders and make yourself, your interests, and skills known, advises Clark.

Photo: Brooks Canaday/Courtesy of Northeastern University

In exploring potential research collaborators, he came across Heather Clark, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Northeastern University's Bouvé College of Health Sciences, who was working on numerous biosensor-related projects at the nanotech scale. Skipwith contacted her with a request for a postdoc appointment and a collaboration was born, as Clark immediately realized the value they both could provide each other. "He taught us techniques in biophysics, and we taught him about nanoscience," she says. Today, as Clark's postdoc, he partners with chemists, pharmaceutical scientists, and engineers in her lab as he develops the biosensors.

This research "marriage" is not atypical in biosystems nanotechnology labs: Across academia, government, and industry, groups are almost always interdisciplinary, and new employees—whether they are postdocs or permanent staff—are hired based on how they can holistically contribute to the team, or for specific skills they possess which will complement the group's expertise.

Biosystems nanotechnology, or nanomedicine, requires diversity amongst its researchers because of its complexity. Medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and sensors can have nanotechnological elements or can be built at the nanoscale themselves. For example, "we're taking off-the-shelf [medical devices], such as hip implants, which typically have a failure rate after 20 years, and putting nanomaterials on the surface," explains Tom Webster, chair and professor of chemical engineering at Northeastern University and president-elect of the Society for Biomaterials. This nanofication can decrease inflammation and scar tissue and encourage bone growth. "It's not changing the chemistry of the implant, but incorporating nanotexturing onto the surface of the device itself." Scientists see enormous growth potential in adding nanoparticles to stents, orthopedics, catheters, and even dental implants to speed the healing process. "Some people think that nanomedicine is 20 years away, but short-term examples (like medical devices with nanofeatures) are happening now," he says.

Global contributions

Indeed, "a huge number of innovations associated with problems that nanotechnology can solve are in the healthcare space," echoes Lloyd Whitman, interim director of the (U.S.) National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) coordination office, which manages the activities under the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). He notes that the largest budget for nanotech projects in the U.S. government currently resides in the NIH, at $441.5 million per year.

In fact, across the world, countries are recognizing the potential of this field to radically change health care. Asia especially is showing growth, as nations such as Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, India, and China invest in research in these areas. "A lot of countries are focused on physical science applications to biosystems," says Saion Sinha, a professor of physics and electrical engineering at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and a researcher in nanomaterials. "There used to be silos where biologists and physicists didn't talk. But Asian governments are playing a role in building centers that [encourage collaboration]. That's why Asia is forging ahead [in nanomedicine]."

Singapore has shown to be a powerhouse of nanotech research as "it is pouring lots of money into recruiting high-level scientists in nanomedicine and nanotechnology," says Scott McNeil, who heads the U.S. National Cancer Institute's Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL). The nation began ramping up its investments into biomedical research around 2000, notes Chwee Teck Lim, an entrepreneur and provost's chair professor in the departments of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS). "It's an exciting time in Singapore because the government is making available lots of money to do research and it is also very pro-R&D," he says. Its National Research Foundation, only eight years old, provides hefty fellowships to young investigators (up to US$3 million), as well as support for technology accelerators and startups. Furthermore, it offers financial incentives for overseas universities to set up shop in the country.

Taiwan is in a current state of enhancing its abilities to contribute to biosystems nanotechnology, says Tao-Shih Hsieh, a distinguished research fellow and director of the Institute of Cellular and Organismic Biology at Academia Sinica in Taipei. "Medical science is the next phase of Taiwanese technology [advancement]," he says. The government is investing in its major universities, and alumni and industry colleagues are actively being recruited back to the nation to participate in research activities associated with this field. "Taiwan is in a position to be much stronger in nanotechnology in the future," he concludes.

Similarly, Japan seems to be trying hard to expand its reach in biosystems nanotech. The country's 2006–2010 Science & Technology Plan identified nanotechnology and new materials as part of eight promotion areas and helped establish a new section of Japan's National Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) that focuses on nanomedicine. Both the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) (which oversees the NIHS) have invested in projects in nanotechnology in biological systems. Although experts agree that the country is investing in nanotechnology in general, there is still much to do in terms of solidifying Japan's reputation as a nanomedicine leader. Toru Maekawa, the director of the Bi-Nano Electronics Research Center at Toyo University, notes that his organization, which was established in 1996, has received MEXT funding, but the strongest government support is still in traditional research areas and not frontier science like biosystems nanotechnology. "I hope Japan will be very good at nanomedicine [in the future]," he says.

China is in a growth spurt. Yuliang Zhao, deputy director-general of the National Center for Nanosciences and Technology of China, and director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Key Laboratory for Biomedical Effects of Nanomaterials and Nanosafety, sees a number of actions taking place in the nation currently that will impact its prominence in the field of nanomedicine, including "the higher-and-higher-quality academic activities, the long-term governmental investment, the ambitious venture capital, the transformative industry (from labor-intensive to tech-intensive), and the vast needs from a huge population of patients," he says. "All of these are moving together and their integration will impact and promote the uses of nanotech in biosystems and medical technology in the future." That being said, he and other experts suggest that China still has a ways to go before it is considered to be a top-tier contributor to this arena on the world stage.

In the European Union, continental programs are pushing to make an impact in nanomedicine. The European Commission is in the process of creating an E.U.-wide nanotech characterization laboratory, similar to the NCL in the United States, says McNeil. The new center will serve small companies and academic labs by not only conducting characterization studies, but also pursuing opportunities for scaling up the technological innovations, the latter of which "is the missing piece in the U.S.," he says. The latest E.U. research funding framework, Horizon 2020, has provisions that support applied and industry-related investigations, which can include biosystems nanotech.

Sonia Contera, a Spanish physicist who co-directs the Oxford Martin School's Institute of Nanoscience for Medicine, sees Horizon 2020 as a potential game-changer in the discipline. "Individual country's governments are not funding individual scientists like they used to, and people like me, who are multidisciplinary, don't fit with local country funding programs," she says. "But Horizon 2020 makes it easier to obtain grants and will lead to more technological development," as it funds research that aligns scientists and engineers with clinicians working at hospitals and in industry.

Group makeup and leadership

One key component of successful medical nanotechnology programs is the diverse makeup of the teams. The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer funds nine academic centers that wed nanotechnology and biological systems, and since its beginning, it has mandated that its centers are co-led by physical scientists or engineers and cancer biologists or oncologists. "This dual leadership works quite well because of the sophistication and diversity of expertise needed in the medical nanotech space," says its director, Piotr Grodzinski.

Beyond the NCI, many programs are collaboratively managed by life and physical scientists. Case in point: Shaochen Chen, a professor of nanoengineering and bioengineering at the University of California San Diego, who co-directs the university's Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Center (which is part of the Institute of Engineering in Medicine) with a medical doctor. "The problems require us to work together. As engineers, we have to find real biological needs for the tools we develop, otherwise they will be useless," he shares. "We don't know the critical biological questions, but the medical researchers don't know how to build the tools that we do. The engineers, biologists, and clinicians have to work together."

Lim's team sits in the NUS Mechanobiology Institute and the faculty of engineering, and as he consults with biologists and clinicians as dictated by the nature of his various projects, he stresses the need for engineers and physical scientists to partner with medical doctors early and regularly in the innovation process. "Often engineers will come up with an idea that clinicians do not really need," i.e., they develop a solution looking for a problem, he says. "They need to interact with each other right at the very early stage—that's the bottom line. It could be the engineer leading the project or the clinician, but either way it's important to collaborate and get off on the right foot."

Where the jobs are

Given that nanotechnology experts come from a plethora of fields, their job opportunities are just as varied and rich. In academia, departments such as chemical engineering, materials science, physics, and chemistry are hiring, as are pharmaceutical sciences, medicine, and various life sciences.

In industry, nanotech biosystems investigations may take place in R&D or manufacturing, says Webster. This is the structure found at Johnson & Johnson, says Ibraheem Badejo, a biomaterials scientist with J&J's Cambridge Innovation Center in Massachusetts, where nanotech experts are found in R&D or in the preclinical/product development side. Physicists and mechanical and chemical engineers tend to start in research, and biologists with nanotechnology experience often start on the preclinical side, he adds.

At Boston Scientific, nanotechnology experts find themselves essentially as consultants for projects throughout the organization, describes Peter Edelman, a biomaterials expert and R&D fellow. His projects range from exploratory research to support and expansion of existing products, but scientists and engineers with nanotechnology knowledge could find themselves in any part of the firm, including product development and manufacturing. As "big pharma is actively seeking out investigations to do reformulations of existing small molecules into nanoparticles," notes McNeil, there has been an uptick in career opportunities in both big and small firms in this sector, including startups.

Advice for advancement

Webster predicts that as nanotech takes a larger role in medicine, there will be more opportunities available for those who have nanotechnology experience. "All of the exciting research taking place in biomaterials and biopharmaceuticals is at the nanoscale," he says. "There are [plenty] of opportunities for learning and research—it's a wonderful [time] to embrace the field."

So how do you prepare for these openings? "Learn the language and culture of the different fields so you can bridge them," says Whitman. For life scientists, opportunities will be significantly broader as they expand their horizons and hone skills in techniques and tactics employed by engineers and physical scientists. "When scientists are cross-trained in more than one discipline, they become more marketable," says Grodzinski.

Proactively reach out to leaders and make yourself, your interests, and skills known, advises Clark. And since nanotech is global in it of itself, experience working in other cultures and nations will bolster your resume, says Chen. But perhaps most importantly, keep nurturing your inquisitive nature. As Whitman encourages his protégés to ask themselves: "Where are the questions that haven't been answered?"

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