Inside Yale professor Hur Koser’s lab, magnetic liquids known as ferrofluids are under development. Someday, they could help diagnose cancer in people whose disease is barely progressing.
Mark Saltzman, another researcher at the university, is pushing for ways to target cancer cells where they’re centered, which could spare future patients from the full-body assault of traditional chemotherapy.
These projects are some of the many nanotechnology-related studies going on at Yale. During a Friday workshop at the Yale School of Medicine’s Anlyan Center, Koser, Saltzman and others outlined their work, hoping to spur further collaborations between engineers and medical researchers on campus.
Paul Fleury, a professor of engineering and applied physics and the director of the Yale Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering, opened the session by calling the evolution of nanotechnology in medicine one of the places where the use of the super-tiny substances has had the most impact.
Nanomedicine—which works with materials measured in billionths of a meter, at which they can take on powerful new properties—is “where life meets quantum mechanics,” Fleury said.
YINQE (pronounced “yink,” not “yinky,” as Fleury pointed out) brought several of its affiliated scholars to the event. Michael Rooks, a senior research scientist and the associate director of facilities, talked about what’s possible in the institute’s laboratories and gave a brief overview of how nano-related research fits into the world of medicine.
He offered a series of examples to help illustrate what types of particles represent the ever-smaller spectrum these researchers are working with. For example, a human eyelash is about 100 microns in size, while at the 10-micron level, the size of a single skin cell is on par with the amount of space occupied by one song on a computer memory chip.
At the even tinier 100-nanometer size, Rooks compared a cold virus with a tiny cross-section of a man-made transistor.
At these sizes and smaller, Rooks said, the dust that populates our everyday lives becomes a big problem. He brought props to illustrate how well air filters clean the air in the “clean rooms” used by researchers: two long tubes, each containing one cubic foot of air. When he held them up, the tube of regular air was more than half-full of sand; the cleanest areas in these rooms, he said, contain only a handful of grains.
Saltzman, a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, discussed the promising potential for nanoparticles in cancer treatment. His team is working with polymers that are compatible with the human body to target tumors and the surrounding area directly, without circulating chemotherapy throughout the entire body.
For example, Saltzman said, tiny wafers saturated with drugs can be placed inside the cavity left when surgeons remove a brain tumor, and then keep fighting the cancer for weeks or months afterwards. Saltzman said that Yale researchers have demonstrated that these polymer-based doses of cancer drugs are more effective in fighting the disease in mice than direct injections of the drugs alone.
“They work because we think they can enter the cells” and kill the cancer from the inside, he said.
Tarek Fahmy, a professor of biomedical engineering and chemical and environmental engineering who did his postdoctoral work at Yale, is working in immunology. He outlined how nanoparticles could help advance the development of vaccines and help eradicate major diseases.
Because the particles are the same size as some of the pathogens they’re fighting, such as HIV and West Nile virus, scientists are effectively using nature’s own innovations against it.
Fahmy is developing a meter using carbon nanowires that would allow quick detection of diseases in the blood, as well as a patient’s immune response to both a pathogen and treatment.
Another way to help doctors diagnose patients faster could come from ferrofluids, which are suspensions of magnetized nanoparticles. Electrical engineering professor Koser described how these fluids could be used to separate certain types of small particles, such as blood cells and bacteria, quickly.
That could help doctors speed up the detection of low-level pathogens in the body, such as tumor cells that are in such low concentrations that they’re difficult to find with traditional blood work, Koser said.
In an interview, Fleury said that the main point of the workshop was to showcase some of the partnerships already forged across disciplines at Yale, and to motivate more scientists to put their brains together.
“This is a historic and deep problem, the difference in culture between the physics and science and engineering on one hand and medicine on the other hand, in terms of the approach to research,“he said. “Often, medical researchers tend to see the engineers as gadgeteers to provide gizmos.”
Since YINQE began, Fleury said, the center has worked to foster collaboration, hosting a series of seminars that brought mostly Yale scientists together and offering seed grants to researchers who propose interdisciplinary projects. So far, that’s meant more than $1 million to 17 projects, he said.
“Practically everyone” at YINQE now has an active project with someone at Yale’s medical school, or at a medical school at another university, Fleury said.
“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on the bio-nano axis, but not exclusively,” he said.