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New St. Louis institute aiming to advance nanomedicine kicks off Thursday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2009 - The St. Louis Institute of Nanomedicine opens Thursday with the aim of advancing the field in the St. Louis area.

Nanomedicine refers to the use of nanotechnologies to treat diseases and repair the human body. Researchers believe nanomedicine holds promise for treating diseases, especially cancer and cardiovascular disease, and doing imaging much more effectively and efficiently than current methods allow. Many believe these treatments hold great potential, but more research is needed -- and the cost of bringing therapies to patients is substantial.

Dr. Sam Wickline of Washington University said the event carries symbolic importance.

"It's recognition of the interest in nanomedicine in this region and that it's something to support," said Wickline, professor of medicine, biomedical engineering and physics at Washington University and head of the Siteman Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence. "The kickoff basically says, 'We're here.'"

Wickline said the main focus of the institute --- which includes Washington University, Saint Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis and St. Louis Community College --- is to bring together people interested in nanomedicine and to help local institutions share resources and equipment.

The group also aims to use its members' expertise to facilitate clinical trials and the commercialization of nanomedicine treatments and to educate the workforce and the public. Down the road, the institute hopes it can increase the size and influence of the local biotechnology industry.

The St. Louis Institute of Nanomedicine received $1.5 million from the Missouri Life Sciences Research Fund in December 2008 to conduct pilot projects. The institute also hopes to get funding from other regional organizations.

Nanomedicine has steadily grown in the past 10 to 15 years, but now Wickline said the field has "finally gotten out of the barn."

But many factors cloud the field's future, including the current economy. There's also uncertainty about how effective nanomedicine treatments will be.


Despite the obstacles, Wickline said the field has great promise for generating new treatments. The Food and Drug Administration has already approved the first generation of chemotherapy drugs using nanomedicine innovations. Wickline said the public can expect "an explosion" of clinical trials for such drugs in the near future.

Nanomedicine centers on using nanoparticles, microscopic molecules that serve as delivery vehicles for treatment molecules. Millions are injected into the bloodstream and travel where the attached molecules are needed.

Researchers can also attach homing molecules that can key in to complementary molecules found only on a certain body structure or cell. That could allow researchers to target the nanoparticles, and the drugs they carry, at specific tissues or cells.

Wickline said this technique could revolutionize areas like chemotherapy by letting physicians target drugs at cancer cells while avoiding normal cells. Using current methods, chemo drugs reach places in the body where they aren't needed. The problem is chemotherapy drugs are toxic not only to cancer cells but also to normal cells.

Nanoparticles, on the other hand, can deliver more medicine to the target than can traditional chemotherapy, all while minimizing how much medicine non-cancer cells receive, Wickline said.

"You use quite a low dose in the bloodstream, but then it accumulates at the target site because you've put a specific targeting entity on the nanoparticle itself," Wickline said. "So basically, you amplify many-fold the concentration of the drug at the intended site and reduce many-fold the concentration at the unintended sites."

Scientists also think they can improve medical imaging by using nanoparticles with imaging agents. The agents illuminate the targets, making them easier to see with conventional imaging methods like MRI. If those nanoparticles are also delivering drugs, the brightness can tell physicians how much drug the target received.

In the case of cancer treatments, Wickline said physicians can also tell how big a tumor is. That information can help them adjust chemo treatments.

The imaging agents can also detect significantly smaller tumors than current technologies can; that could lead to much earlier diagnoses.

Currently these nanoparticles are passive treatments, meaning they go where the bloodstream takes them until they reach their targets. At some point, researchers hope to find ways to transport them more directly.

Off in the future are potentially even more sophisticated treatments in the realm of synthetic biology, including nanostructures that could repair or take on the functions of cells or organelles.

"If you look inside the cells that make up our body, they're basically populated by thousands of nanomachines already," Wickline said. The difference, he said, is the structures in our bodies are mostly proteins, while nanomachines are made of synthetic polymers.


But Wickline said nanomedicine faces several challenges. For one, researchers don't yet know how beneficial or how effective the treatments will actually be.

"We're still trying to prove the value proposition of nanomedicine in general," Wickline said.

The success of nanomedicine, Wickline said, would also mean a major change in how treatments are developed. But society is slow to adapt to these changes.

"Nanotechnology is not new, but in medicine it takes a long time to get a new idea, particularly a therapeutic one, into the hands of practitioners," Wickline said.

One reason is that nanomedicines are much more complicated than current treatments, which are often single molecules. Drugs in general have a long regulatory pathway to get approval for the market; complicated treatments often take longer.

Most nanomedicine drugs are commercialized by biotechnology start-up firms, which typically get their funding from venture capitalists. Because treatments can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, Wickline said the poor economy has discouraged financiers from funding these high-risk start-ups.

Still, he said nanomedicine, with the help of the St. Louis Institute of Nanomedicine could actually boost the economy in the long term.

"There are a lot of ideas, a lot of potential utility, and if this area adopted a forward-looking view toward moving some of that into the commercial arena, I think they could profit from it," Wickline said.

Puneet Kollipara, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Washington University.