Tiny Medical Tool Nets Gracias New Innovator Award

Self assembling cubes and David Gracias. Credit: Gracias Lab/JHU, Will Kirk/HIPS/JHU

David Gracias, Johns Hopkins University assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering, received the prestigious 2008 New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health. Gracias, an affiliated faculty member of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, builds medical tools smaller than a speck of dust. The NIH grant, worth $1.5 million in direct research costs over five years, was awarded September 22, 2008. Gracias was among 31 scientists from universities and institutes throughout the United States selected to receive this year’s New Innovator grants, designed to support novel research projects. Ronald Cohn, Johns Hopkins assistant professor of pediatrics and neurology at the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, was also chosen for the award.

“Nothing is more important to me than stimulating and sustaining deep innovation, especially for early career investigators and despite challenging budgetary times,“ NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni said. “These highly creative researchers are tackling important scientific challenges with bold ideas and inventive technologies that promise to break through barriers and radically shift our understanding.“

Kristina M. Johnson, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at The Johns Hopkins University, added, “There is keen competition for major awards such as these. We are extremely pleased that the NIH has recognized the fine research being conducted by Ronald Cohn and David Gracias. This financial support will help move them closer to their goals of producing important new medical treatments and tools.“

David Gracias will use his New Innovator award to continue to develop minimally invasive microscale and nanoscale tools and devices for medicine. Microscale tools are designed to perform procedures such as biopsies or to deliver medication at the cellular level; nanoscale tools operate in the realm of proteins and viruses.

A key advantage of the tiny containers and grippers already developed in Gracias’ lab is that they can release drugs and grasp tissue without requiring batteries or a wire connected to an outside power source. Instead, Gracias’ miniaturized tools are moved from afar by magnets and are activated by chemicals or temperature changes.

“Tomorrow’s medical devices will be smart,“ Gracias says. “We want to get rid of the wires and build an entire mobile, miniaturized surgical toolbox, including devices that can access diseased areas that are difficult to reach with the currently available, tethered, minimally invasive tools.“

Gracias has already demonstrated that his prototypes work in lab experiments, and animal testing is under way. With the New Innovators grant, he hopes to advance this research and move closer to the day when physicians will be able to use his tiny tools on patients. “We have some ambitious goals, and there is a lot of work to be done,“ Gracias says. “But if we succeed, the payoff could be enormous. It could give doctors important new tools to help them diagnose and treat medical problems.“

Gracias was raised in Mumbai, India, and earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. He received his doctorate in physical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University before joining the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2003.

Regarding Gracias’ New Innovator Award, Nick Jones, dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, said, “We’re thrilled that David has received this well-deserved recognition. The award acknowledges more than his pioneering work in micro-to-nanoscale tools and devices for medicine. It is also a confirmation of his role as an exceptionally innovative engineer and recognition of the tremendous potential his research holds.“

The New Innovator Award program was launched by NIH in 2007 to support a small group of new investigators who propose bold new approaches that have the potential to produce a major impact on a broad area of biomedical or behavioral research. The program currently supports 61 investigators—30 selected last year and 31 more this year.

David Gracias’ INBT Faculty Home Page


Information about the New Innovator Awards:


Story adapted from original first posted by the Office of News and Information, Johns Hopkins University. http://www.jhu.edu/news_info/news/home08/sep08/innovators.html

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