Advancing medical nanotechnology

September 21, 2017

Only a year after establishing the intelligent systems engineering program in the Indiana University School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, the university has been awarded a five-year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to advance nanoscale devices to improve human health, including fighting cancer.

The grant will create the Engineered nanoBIO Hub at IU, one of three “nodes” under the NSF’s Network for Computational Nanotechnology nanoHUB project, which provides scientists access to advanced tools for complex research problems. The node at IU will focus on simulating the interactions between nanoscale devices — which operate at the level of a nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter — and biological cells and tissues.

The grant is led by Geoffrey C. Fox, IU Distinguished Professor and interim associate dean for intelligent systems engineering at the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering.

“We’re living in a world where people are increasingly ‘instrumented’ with wearable devices and implanted devices within the body,” Fox said. Examples include ingestible pills that allow doctors to remotely monitor a patient’s vital signs, microscopically small machines to continuously monitor blood sugar in people with diabetes, and customized nanoscale medical devices that offer physicians the unprecedented ability to detect and infiltrate cancer cells to destroy them — or even potentially “reprogram” them to behave like normal cells.

“This award is a real vote of confidence in the school and an acknowledgement of the fact that our people are conducting extremely relevant, exciting work,” added Fox, who also directs the Digital Science Center at IU. “To receive a grant of this magnitude only one year after officially launching an engineering department with programs in bioengineering and nanoengineering is a major achievement.”

The ultimate goal of the project is to support the development of medical devices that “operate at the intersection of nanotechnology and biotechnology,” he said.

Such devices will require extremely complex software to design and run. It’s also important that researchers can simulate their function inside a computer program prior to using them in people to ensure the devices work correctly and efficiently and don’t cause harm.

The grant supports efforts to develop, and provide wider access to, tools that simulate these nanoparticle-based devices’ physical design, simulate and fine-tune their interaction with tissues in the body, and improve their effectiveness. IU researchers will also work to advance the platform through which scientists and medical researchers beyond the university can access the tools — and the vast computing power required to run the simulations — in a relatively user-friendly format within a web browser.

The project’s leaders note that IU students will benefit from the project as the first people in the world to gain hands-on experience with these simulation technologies. The grant will also fund six Ph.D. students.

“This work puts our intelligent systems engineering program at the forefront of an extremely exciting, emerging field,” said Raj Acharya, dean of the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering. “The efforts led by Geoffrey Fox and colleagues will advance IU’s reputation as a world leader in the design of these extremely complex devices with vast potential to benefit human health.”

Other leaders of the project are IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering faculty members Vikram Jadhao, an expert in the simulation of the materials used in nanoscale devices; Paul Macklin, an expert in the simulation of cancer tissue; and James A. Glazier, an expert in the simulation of physical systems in the body. As director of the IU Biocomplexity Institute, Glazier led the development of a software program called CompuCell3D, which has been used to simulate systems such as tumor growth in polycystic kidney disease and the absorption of painkillers in the liver. The first phase of the grant-funded project will expand access to these and other tools developed in-house at IU. Later, the researchers aim to integrate tools from the wider scientific community into the platform so they will also be more widely available.

An additional lead researcher on the project is Trevor Douglas, a professor in the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, whose lab will help conduct tests of nanoscale devices in biological conditions to confirm the accuracy of the team’s computational models and software simulations. An expert in biomimetic nanomaterials, Douglas focuses on work involving engineering systems inspired by nature.

The IU Pervasive Technology Institute is also a partner on the project. As a part of the NSF’s Science Gateways Community Institute, the institute will facilitate the worldwide scientific community’s access to the nanotechnology and biotechnology simulation tools supported under the grant.