Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is giving the development of nanotechnology a big boost, by establishing a new $60 million research institute in Nanomedicine, which focuses on the medical application of nanotechnology. An emerging field in drugs, nanomedicine are made up of tiny nano-sized particles thousands of times smaller than a grain of sand.
The new Nanomedicine Institute@NTU will be headed by Professor Subbu Venkatraman, Chair of NTU's School of Materials Science and Engineering, with Professor Chad Mirkin from Northwestern University as the chairman of its advisory committee. Prof Mirkin is a scientific advisor to United States President Barack Obama and a celebrated nanotechnology expert with more than 80 national and international awards and is the author of over 550 manuscripts and has over 930 patents worldwide.
Prof Mirkin is renowned globally for his work involving Spherical Nucleic Acids, structures made by taking DNA or RNA, the codes of life, and arranging them into a tiny ball on the surface of a nanoparticle, typically made of gold. The founder of four successful companies, he is acknowledged as a pioneer in using such nanomaterials for molecular and medical sensing, and is now developing various types of nanomedicines for the treatment of cancer.
Set to be Southeast Asia's first research institute in nanomedicine, the new Nanotechnology Institute @NTU will have the well-known International Institute of Nanotechnology (IIN), based in Northwestern University and headed by Professor Mirkin, as its main collaborative partner.
The new institute has identified several initial projects such as a new anti-glaucoma nanomedicine. Injected only twice yearly to replace the current daily eye drops, the nanomedicine reduces high eye-pressure, which if left untreated can lead to blindness.
Another project in the works is the new drug-eluting balloon, which can deliver drugs in nano form over a long period of time to prevent re-occurrence of cardiovascular plaque that narrow the arteries.
Announced today by NTU Provost, Professor Freddy Boey, the new Nanomedicine Institute @ NTU will have $60 million in funding and will focus on developing innovative solutions in four core areas - diabetes, cardiovascular, ophthalmology and skin therapeutics.
Prof Boey, a serial inventor and a nanoscience expert himself globally, said the new institute will build upon the university's success in nanomaterials to develop innovative diagnostic and therapeutic medicine that will address medical needs which are currently unmet.
"The use of Nanomaterials for medical applications is today, one of the most exciting frontiers, enabling solutions for unmet needs never thought possible previously," Prof Boey said.
"NTU has already produced some "first-in-the-world" solutions using nanomaterials for cardiovascular and ophthalmology diseases. There are still many, many unmet medical needs, for example, in the area of diabetes. This effort will help Singapore and NTU to be at the forefront in developing disruptive solutions for unmet medical needs globally. "
"Likewise, while there are current drugs to tackle the diseases of today, they may not be the most effective in their current form. For example, by changing the packaging and delivery of a drug into a nano-sized form, we can prolong the period of which the drug stays in a body, reducing both the frequency and amount of drugs needed to treat the affected body part."
Strong interdisciplinary approach
The university wide Nanomedicine Institute @ NTU will have research facilities in both NTU's Yunnan Garden campus and Novena campus. It brings together NTU's key nanotechnology-related projects and experts, across its engineering and science schools, including NTU's new medical school, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.
Founding Director of the Institute, Professor Subbu Venkatraman said: "Medical solutions for the future can only be found through a strong interdisciplinary approach in research; this is particularly true for Nanomedicine."
"For example, the new glaucoma nanomedicine was only developed through joint collaboration between myself, Prof Boey and a clinician-scientist, Associate Professor Tina Wong, from the Singapore Eye Research Institute," added the materials science expert with several patents to his name.
The nanomedicine is made by encasing the usual anti-glaucoma drug in millions of nano-sized capsules, which then degrades over a few months to release the drugs. These small capsules are about 100,000 times small than a grain of rice.
"A prolonged timed-release drug delivery nanomedicine product did not exist until now, and it would not have been possible without inputs of medical doctors and strong materials science knowledge," added Prof Subbu.
Similarly, the heart balloon used in surgeries to widen narrowed arteries and to prevent a heart attack can be further improved with a new gel. This gel contains millions of timed-release nano-sized capsules which have anti-restenotic drugs in them to help prevent the re-narrowing of arteries after it has been widened.
Top international partners
Joining Professor Chad Mirkin in the advisory board of NTU's new institute is his colleague Prof Vinayak Dravid from the Northwestern University Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization (NUANCE) Center. Together, they bring on board considerable experience in translating nanomedicinal products to market.
Prof Mirkin said: "NTU's partnership with Northwestern University's International Institute for Nanotechnology will create a world class recruiting base and research infrastructure, making it one of the largest global efforts in the field of nanomedicine.
"Through the new institute, NTU and Northwestern scientists, engineers, and medical doctors will collaboratively develop new ways of tracking and treating some of the world's most debilitating diseases," said the nanoscience expert, who is also a visiting professor at NTU.
Prof Mirkin's many awards for his nanotechnology work include the prestigious Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology, the Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, considered by many to be the Nobel prize of invention.
Other notable tie-ups will be with Professor Lenny Rome of the California Nanosystems Institute (CNSI) and Prof Shlomo Mogdassi of Hebrew University, who was involved with the translation of a very early nanomedicine product, Abraxane, used in the treatment of breast, lung and pancreatic cancer.
The institute will also work with Prof Marcelle Machluf of Technion Institute of Technology, who is recognised for her work in drug delivery and tissue engineering.
Market estimates places the value of existing nanomedicine products worldwide at US$112 billion in 2012, and is expected to expand 10.8 per cent annually. The estimates do not include the newly-created markets such as in ophthalmology (approx. $2 billion), dermatology (approx. $1 billion) cardiovascular ($7 billion) and diabetes ($8 to $10 billion).
Besides ground-breaking research, NTU has had remarkable success translating its research into innovative applications. Most recently ranked 41st globally by higher education information provider Quacquarelli Symonds, NTU was also ranked No. 1 in the world by Times higher Education in industry income and innovation.