Konstantopoulos to present distinguished lecture on tumor cell migration

Biomedical Engineering 8 5 x 11 4-7Biomedical Engineering 8 5 x 11 4-7Biomedical Engineering 8 5 x 11 4-7Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Konstantinos Konstantopoulos will present a distinguished lecture for the Department of Biomedical Engineering on Monday, April 7 at 4 p.m. in the Mason Hall Auditorium on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University.  His talk. “Joining Forces with Biology: A Bioengineering Perspective on Tumor Cell Migration,” will reveal some of his laboratory’s current findings on metastasis. The talk is free and open the Johns Hopkins University community. Refreshments follow the lecture.

Here’s the abstract of his talk:

“Understanding the mechanisms of cell migration is a fundamental question in cell, developmental and cancer biology. Unraveling key, physiologically relevant motility mechanisms is also crucial for developing technologies that can control, manipulate, promote or stop cell migration in vivo. Much of what we know about the mechanisms of cell migration stems from in vitro studies using two-dimensional (2D) surfaces. Cell locomotion in 2D is driven by cycles of actin protrusion, integrin-mediated adhesion and myosin-dependent contraction. A major pitfall of 2D assays is that they fail to account for the physical confinement that cells  encounter within the physiological tissue environment. The seminar will challenge the conventional wisdom regarding cell motility mechanisms, and show that migration through physically constricted spaces does not require beta1 integrin dependent adhesion or myosin contractility. Importantly, confined migration persists even when filamentous actin is disrupted. This seminar will also discuss a novel mechanism of confined cell migration based on an osmotic en

Nanotechnology for gene therapy

Editor’s Note: The following is a summary of one of the talks from the 2013 Nano-bio Symposium hosted by Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology held May 17. This summary was written by Randall Meyer, a doctoral candidate in the biomedical engineering and a member of the Cancer Nanotechnology Training Center. Look for other symposium summaries on the INBT blog.

One of the key features of nanotechnology is its wide range of applicability across multiple biological scenarios ranging from gene therapy to immune system modulation. Jordan Green, an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, summarized some of the fascinating applications of nanotechnology on which his laboratory has been working. Green is an INBT affiliated faculty member.

One of the Green lab projects involves the design and implementation of nanoparticle based vectors for delivery of genetic material to the cell. Green demonstrated how these particles could be used to deliver DNA and induce expression of a desired gene, or small interfering RNA (siRNA) to silence the expression of a target gene. These genetic therapeutics are being developed to target a wide variety of retinal diseases and cancers.

Jordan Green (Photo by Marty Katz)

Jordan Green (Photo by Marty Katz)

 

As opposed to viral based vectors for gene therapy, nonviral vectors such as nanoparticles are safer, more flexible in their range of cellular targets, and can carry larger cargoes than viruses, Green explained.

 

Another project in the Green lab involves the development of micro and nano dimensional artificial antigen presenting cells (aAPCs) for cancer immunotherapy. These aAPCs mimic the natural signals that killer T-cells receive when there is an invader (bacteria, virus, cancer cell, etc.) in the body. The Green lab is currently working with these particles to stimulate the immune system to fight melanoma.

 

Green Group

Nanoscale scaffolds spur stem cells to cartilage repair

Scanning electron micrographs showing chondroitin sulfate (CS) and poly(vinyl alcohol)-methacrylate (PVA) nanofibers after electrospinning and processing to render the nanofiber scaffolds water-insoluble. Image by Jeannine Coburn/JHU first appeared in PNAS.

A spun 3-D scaffold of nanofibers did a better job of producing larger quantities of and a more durable type of the cartilage protein than flat, 2-D sheets of fibers did. 

Johns Hopkins tissue engineers have used tiny, artificial fiber scaffolds thousands of times smaller than a human hair to help coax stem cells into developing into cartilage, the shock-absorbing lining of elbows and knees that often wears thin from injury or age.

Reporting online June 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators say they have produced an important component of cartilage in both laboratory and animal models. While the findings are still years away from use in people, the researchers say the results hold promise for devising new techniques to help the millions who endure joint pain.

“Joint pain affects the quality of life of millions of people. Rather than just patching the problem with short-term fixes, like surgical procedures such as microfracture, we’re building a temporary template that mimics the cartilage cell’s natural environment, and taking advantage of nature’s signals to biologically repair cartilage damage,” says Jennifer Elisseeff, Ph.D., Jules Stein Professor of Ophthalmology and director of the Translational Tissue Engineering Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Elisseeff is also an affiliated faculty member of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

Unlike skin, cartilage can’t repair itself when damaged. For the last decade, Elisseeff’s team has been trying to better understand the development and growth of cartilage cells called chondrocytes, while also trying to build scaffolding that mimics the cartilage cell environment and generates new cartilage tissue. This environment is a three-dimensional mix of protein fibers and gel that provides support to connective tissue throughout the body, as well as physical and biological cues for cells to grow and differentiate.

In the laboratory, the researchers created a nanofiber-based network using a process called electrospinning, which entails shooting a polymer stream onto a charged platform, and added chondroitin sulfate — a compound commonly found in many joint supplements — to serve as a growth trigger. After characterizing the fibers, they made a number of different scaffolds from either spun polymer or spun polymer plus chondroitin. They then used goat bone marrow-derived stem cells (a widely used model) and seeded them in various scaffolds to see how stem cells responded to the material.

Elisseeff and her team watched the cells grow and found that compared to cells growing without scaffold, these cells developed into more voluminous, cartilage-like tissue.

“The nanofibers provided a platform where a larger volume of tissue could be produced,” says Elisseeff, adding that three-dimensional nanofiber scaffolds were more useful than the more common nanofiber sheets for studying cartilage defects in humans.

The investigators then tested their system in an animal model. They implanted the nanofiber scaffolds into damaged cartilage in the knees of rats, and compared the results to damaged cartilage in knees left alone.

They found that the use of the nanofiber scaffolds improved tissue development and repair as measured by the production of collagen, a component of cartilage. The nanofiber scaffolds resulted in greater production of a more durable type of collagen, which is usually lacking in surgically repaired cartilage tissue. In rats, for example, they found that the limbs with damaged cartilage treated with nanofiber scaffolds generated a higher percentage of the more durable collagen (type 2) than those damaged areas that were left untreated.

“Whereas scaffolds are generally pretty good at regenerating cartilage protein components in cartilage repair, there is often a lot of scar tissue-related type 1 collagen produced, which isn’t as strong,” says Elisseeff. “We found that our system generated more type 2 collagen, which ensures that cartilage lasts longer.”

“Creating a nanofiber network that enables us to more equally distribute cells and more closely mirror the actual cartilage extracellular environment are important advances in our work and in the field. These results are very promising,” she says.

Other authors included Jeannine M. Coburn, Matthew Gibson, Sean Monagle and Zachary Patterson, all from The Johns Hopkins University.

From a press release by Audrey Huang.

 

It’s a small world: Micro/nanotechnology in regenerative medicine and cancer

Sageeta Bhatia

Nanotechnology, regenerative medicine and cancer will be the topic of a special biomedical engineering seminar on March 6 at 3 p.m. in the Darner Conference Room, Ross Building, Room G007 at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Speaker Sangeeta Bhatia, MD, PhD, director, of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology will present “It’s a small world: Micro/Nanotechnology in Regenerative Medicine and Cancer. ” She will discuss the role of micro and nanotechnology for mimicking, monitoring and perturbing the tissue microenvironment.

“I will present our work on reconstructing normal liver microenvironments using microtechnology, biomaterials and induced pluripotent stem cells as well as our work on normalizing diseased cancer microenvironments using both inorganic and organic nano materials,” Bhatia noted in an announcement.  Bhatia is a professor of Health Sciences and Technology and professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

The talk is hosted by associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and affiliated faculty member of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology Hai-Quan Mao. The event is free and open to the Johns Hopkins Community. Refreshments will be served.

 

 

Engineered hydrogel helps grow new, scar-free skin

In early testing, this hydrogel, developed by Johns Hopkins researchers, helped improve healing in third-degree burns. Photo by Will Kirk/HomewoodPhoto.jhu.edu

Johns Hopkins researchers have developed a jelly-like material and wound treatment method that, in early experiments on skin damaged by severe burns, appeared to regenerate healthy, scar-free tissue.

In the Dec. 12-16 online Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers reported their promising results from mouse tissue tests. The new treatment has not yet been tested on human patients. But the researchers say the procedure, which promotes the formation of new blood vessels and skin, including hair follicles, could lead to greatly improved healing for injured soldiers, home fire victims and other people with third-degree burns.

The treatment involved a simple wound dressing that included a specially designed hydrogel—a water-based, three-dimensional framework of polymers. This material was developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering, working with clinicians at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Burn Center and the Department of Pathology at the university’s School of Medicine.

Third-degree burns typically destroy the top layers of skin down to the muscle. They require complex medical care and leave behind ugly scarring. But in the journal article, the Johns Hopkins team reported that their hydrogel method yielded better results. “This treatment promoted the development of new blood vessels and the regeneration of complex layers of skin, including hair follicles and the glands that produce skin oil,” said Sharon Gerecht, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who was principal investigator on the study.

Guoming Sun, left, a postdoctoral fellow, and Sharon Gerecht, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, helped develop a hydrogel that improved burn healing in early experiments. Photo by Will Kirk/HomewoodPhoto.jhu.edu

Gerecht said the hydrogel could form the basis of an inexpensive burn wound treatment that works better than currently available clinical therapies, adding that it would be easy to manufacture on a large scale. Gerecht suggested that because the hydrogel contains no drugs or biological components to make it work, the Food and Drug Administration would most likely classify it as a device. Further animal testing is planned before trials on human patients begin. But Gerecht said, “It could be approved for clinical use after just a few years of testing.”

John Harmon, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of surgical research at Bayview, described the mouse study results as “absolutely remarkable. We got complete skin regeneration, which never happens in typical burn wound treatment.”

If the treatment succeeds in human patients, it could address a serious form of injury. Harmon, a coauthor of the PNAS journal article, pointed out that 100,000 third-degree burns are treated in U. S. burn centers like Bayview every year. A burn wound dressing using the new hydrogel could have enormous potential for use in applications beyond common burns, including treatment of diabetic patients with foot ulcers, Harmon said.

Guoming Sun, Gerecht’s Maryland Stem Cell Research Postdoctoral Fellow and lead author on the paper, has been working with these hydrogels for the last three years, developing ways to improve the growth of blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis. “Our goal was to induce the growth of functional new blood vessels within the hydrogel to treat wounds and ischemic disease, which reduces blood flow to organs like the heart,” Sun said. “These tests on burn injuries just proved its potential.”

Gerecht says the hydrogel is constructed in such a way that it allows tissue regeneration and blood vessel formation to occur very quickly. “Inflammatory cells are able to easily penetrate and degrade the hydrogel, enabling blood vessels to fill in and support wound healing and the growth of new tissue,” she said. For burns, the faster this process occurs, Gerecht added, the less there is a chance for scarring.

Originally, her team intended to load the gel with stem cells and infuse it with growth factors to trigger and direct the tissue development. Instead, they tested the gel alone. “We were surprised to see such complete regeneration in the absence of any added biological signals,” Gerecht said.

Sun added, “Complete skin regeneration is desired for various wound injuries. With further fine-tuning of these kinds of biomaterial frameworks, we may restore normal skin structures for other injuries such as skin ulcers.”

Gerecht and Harmon say they don’t fully understand how the hydrogel dressing is working. After it is applied, the tissue progresses through the various stages of wound repair, Gerecht said. After 21 days, the gel has been harmlessly absorbed, and the tissue continues to return to the appearance of normal skin.

The hydrogel is mainly made of water with dissolved dextran—a polysaccharide (sugar molecule chains). “It also could be that the physical structure of the hydrogel guides the repair,” Gerecht said. Harmon speculates that the hydrogel may recruit circulating bone marrow stem cells in the bloodstream. Stem cells are special cells that can grow into practically any sort of tissue if provided with the right chemical cue. “It’s possible the gel is somehow signaling the stem cells to become new skin and blood vessels,” Harmon said.

Additional co-authors of the study included Charles Steenbergen, a professor in the Department of Pathology; Karen Fox-Talbot, a senior research specialist from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; and physician researchers Xianjie Zhang, Raul Sebastian and Maura Reinblatt from the Department of Surgery and Hendrix Burn and Wound Lab. From the Whiting School’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, other co-authors were doctoral students Yu-I (Tom) Shen and Laura Dickinson, who is a Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) National Science Foundation IGERT fellow. Gerecht is an affiliated faculty member of INBT.

The work was funded in part by the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund Exploratory Grant and Postdoctoral Fellowship and the National Institutes of Health.

The Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer staff has filed a provisional patent application to protect the intellectual property involved in this project.

Related links:

Sharon Gerecht’s Lab

Johns Hopkins Burn Center

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

 

Story by Mary Spiro

Engineers put a new ‘twist’ on lab-on-a-chip

Close-up of a cylindrically-shaped microfluidic device with two fluorescent solutions flowing through. Reproduced with permission from Nature Communications.

A leaf works something like a miniature laboratory. While the pores on the leaf surface allow it to channel nutrients in and waste products away from a plant, part of a leaf’s function also lies in its ability to curl and twist. Engineers use polymers to create their own mini-labs, devices called “labs-on-a-chip,” which have numerous applications in science, engineering and medicine. The typical flat, lab on a chip, or microfluidic device, resembles an etched microscopy cover slip with channels and grooves.

But what if you could get that flat lab-on-a-chip to self-assemble into a curve, mimicking the curl, twist or spiral of a leaf? Mustapha Jamal, a PhD student and IGERT fellow from Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, has created a way to make that so.

Jamal is the lead author on “Differentially photo-crosslinked polymers enable self-assembling microfluidics,” published November 8, 2011 in Nature Communications. Along with principle investigator David Gracias, associate professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, and fellow graduate student Aasiyeh Zarafshar, Jamal has developed, for the first time, a method for creating three-dimensional lab-on-a-chip devices that can curl and twist.

The process involves shining ultraviolet (UV) light on a film of a substance called SU-8. Film areas closer to the light source become more heavily crosslinked than layers beneath, which on solvent conditioning creates a stress gradient.

Immersing the film in water causes the film to curl. Immersion in organic solvents like acetone causes the film to flatten. The curling and flattening can be reversed. The result, Jamal said, is the “self-assembly of intricate 3D devices that contain microfluidic channels.” This simple method, he added, can “program 2D polymeric (SU-8) films such that they spontaneously and reversibly curve into intricate 3D geometries including cylinders, cubes and corrugated sheets.”

Members of the Gracias lab have previously created curving and folding polymeric films consisting of two different materials. This new method achieves a stress gradient along the thickness of a single substance. “This provides considerable flexibility in the type and extent of curvature that can be created by varying the intensity and direction of exposure to UV light,” Gracias said.

Gracias explained that the method works with current protocols and materials for fabricating flat microfluidic devices. For example, one can design a 2D film with one type of lab-on-a-chip network, and then use their method to shape it into another geometry, also with microfluidic properties.

Fluorescent image of curved, self-assembled microfluidic device. Reproduced with permission from Nature Communications.

“Since our approach is compatible with planar lithography methods, we can also incorporate optical elements such as split ring resonators that have unique optical features. Alternatively, flexible electronic circuits could be incorporated and channels could be used to transport cooling fluids” Gracias said.

Tissue engineering is among the many important applications for 3D microfluidic devices, Gracias said. “Since many hydrogels can be photopolymerized, we can use the methodology of differential cross-linking to create stress gradients in these materials,” Gracias explained. “We plan to create biodegradable, vascularized tissue scaffolds using this approach.”

Link to the journal article here.

Story by Mary Spiro

 

 

Hopkins Imaging Initiative to host first annual conference

The Johns Hopkins University Imaging Initiative will host the first annual Imaging Conference, October 6, 2011 at the Turner Auditorium on the medical campus. The conference features afternoon lectures from various Hopkins faculty followed by a research poster session and happy hour. Anyone interested in imaging is welcome to attend.

Speakers include Elliot McVeigh, director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering; Elliot Fishman, MD, director of diagnostic imaging at body CT at Johns Hopkins Hospital; Jerry Prince, the William B. Kouwenhoven Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering; Xingde Li, associate professor of biomedical engineering and head of the Laboratory of Biophotonics Imaging and Therapy at the Whiting School; Peter van Zijl, professor of radiology at the school of medicine and director of the F.M. Kirby Research Center for Functional Brain Imaging; and several others to be announced.

Abstracts will be accepted until Sept 6 and conference registration will be accepted until October 1. For complete information about this event and to register, go to http://imaging.jhu.edu/conferences/imaging-conference-2011

 

 

 

 

‘Just add water’ to activate freeze-dried brain cancer fighting nanoparticles

A fluorescence micrograph showing brain cancer cells producing a green fluorescent protein. DNA encoded to produce the protein was delivered to the cancer cells by new freeze-dried nanoparticles produced by Johns Hopkins biomedical engineers. Image: Stephany Tzeng/JHU

Biomedical engineers and clinicians at Johns Hopkins University have developed freeze-dried nanoparticles made of a shelf-stable polymer that only need the addition of water to activate their cancer-fighting gene therapy capabilities.

Principal investigator Jordan Green, assistant professor in the department of Biomedical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, led the team that fabricated the polymer-based particles measuring 80 to 150 nanometers in diameter. Each particle, which is about the size of a virus, has the ability to carry a genetic cocktail designed to produce brain cancer cell-destroying molecules. After manufacture, the nanoparticles can be stored for up to 90 days before use. In principle, cancer therapies based on this technology could lead to a convenient commercial product that clinicians simply activate with water before injection into brain cancer tumor sites.

Because this method avoids the common, unpleasant side effects of traditional chemotherapy, “nanoparticle-based gene therapy has the potential to be both safer and more effective than conventional chemical therapies for the treatment of cancer,” Green said. But, he added current gene therapy nanoparticle preparations are just not practical for clinical use.

“A challenge in the field is that most non-viral gene therapy methods have very low efficacy. Another challenge with biodegradable nanoparticles, like the ones used here is that particle preparation typically takes multiple time-sensitive steps.” Green said. “Delay with formulation results in polymer degradation, and there can be variability between batches. Although this is a simple procedure for lab experiments, a clinician who wishes to use these particles during neurosurgery will face factors that would make the results unpredictable.”

In contrast, the nanoparticles developed by the Green lab are a freeze-dried, or “lyophilized,” formulation. “A clinician would simply add water, and it is ready to inject,” Green said. Green thinks this freeze-dried gene-delivery nanoparticle could be easily manufactured on a large scale.

Co-investigator Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, a Johns Hopkins Hospital clinician-scientist and associate professor in the departments of Neurosurgery and Oncology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said he could imagine particles based on this technology being used in conjunction with, and even instead of, brain surgery. “I envision that one day, as we understand the etiology and progression of brain cancer, we will be able to use these nanoparticles even before doing surgery,” Quinones said. “How nice would that be? Imagine avoiding brain surgery all together!”

Currently, patients with glioblastoma, or brain cancer, only have a median survival of about 14 months, Green said. “Methods other than the traditional chemotherapy drugs and radiation—or in combination with them—may improve prognosis,” he said.

Gene therapy approaches could also be personalized, Green said. “Because gene therapy can take advantage of many naturally-existing pathways and can be targeted to the cancer type of choice through nanoparticle design and transcriptional control, several levels of treatment specificity could be provided,” Green said.

The nanoparticles self-assemble from a polymer structural unit, so fabrication is fairly simple, said Green. Finding the right polymer to use, however, proved to be a challenge. Lead author Stephany Tzeng, a PhD student in biomedical engineering in Green’s lab screened an assortment of formulations from a “polymer library” before hitting on a winning combination.

“One challenge with a polymer library approach is that there are many polymers to be synthesized and nanoparticle formulations to be tested. Another challenge is designing the experiments to find out why the lead formulation works so well compared to other similar polymers and to commercially available reagents,” Green said.

Tzeng settled on a particular formulation of poly(beta-amino ester)s specifically attracted to glioblastoma (GB) cells and to brain tumor stem cells (BTSC), the cells responsible for tumor growth and spread. “Poly(beta-amino ester) nanoparticles are generally able to transfect many types of cells, but some are more specific to GBs and BTSCs,” Tzeng said.

The nanoparticles work like a virus, co-opting the cell’s own protein-making machinery, but in this case, to produce a reporter gene (used to delineate a tumor’s location) or new cancer fighting molecule. “It is possible that glioblastoma-derived cells, especially brain tumor stem cells, are more susceptible to our gene delivery approach because they divide much faster,” Tzeng added.

Not only are the particles convenient to use, the team discovered that dividing cells continued to make the new protein for as long as six weeks after application. “The gene expression peaked within a few days, which would correspond to a large initial dose of a therapeutic protein,” said Green. “The fact that gene expression can continue at a low level for a long time following injection could potentially cause a sustained, local delivery of the therapeutic protein without requiring subsequent injection or administration. The cells themselves would act as a ‘factory’ for the drug.”

Once the nanoparticles release their DNA cargo, Tzeng said the polymer quickly degrades in water, usually within days. “From there, we believe the degradation products are processed and excreted with other cellular waste products,” Tzeng said.

Members of the Green Lab are now working on identifying the intracellular mechanism responsible for facilitating cell-specific delivery. “We also plan to build additional levels of targeting into this system to make it even more specific. This includes modifying the nanoparticles with ligands to specifically bind to glioblastoma cells, making the DNA cargo able to be expressed only in GB cells, and using a DNA sequence whose product is only effective in GB cells.”

So far, the team has only successfully transfected brain tumor stem cells using these nanoparticles in a plastic dish. The next step is to test the particle in animal models.

“We hope to begin tests in vivo in the near future by implanting brain tumor stem cells into a mouse and injecting particles. We also hope to begin using functional genes that would kill cancer cells in addition to the fluorescent proteins that serve only as a marker,” Tzeng said.

Other authors who contributed to this work are Hugo Guerrero-Cázares, postdoctoral fellow in Neurosurgery and Oncology, and Joel Sunshine, an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate, and Elliott Martinez, an undergraduate leadership alliance summer student, both from Biomedical Engineering. Funding for this work came from the National Institutes of Health, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a pilot-grant from Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT). Green is an affiliated faculty member of INBT. The research will be published in Issue #23 (August 2011) of the journal Biomaterials and is currently available online.

Freeze-dried gene therapy system avoids virus, complications

Story by Mary Spiro

 

Nanowires Deliver Biochemical Payloads to One Cell Among Many

Imagine being able to drop a toothpick on the head of one particular person standing among 100,000 people in a sports stadium. It sounds impossible, yet this degree of precision at the cellular level has been demonstrated by researchers affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University Institute for NanoBioTechnology. Their study was published online in June in Nature Nanotechnology.

Arrow points to nanowire placed on cell surface. (Image: Levchenko/Chien labs)

The team used precise electrical fields as “tweezers” to guide and place gold nanowires, each about one-two hundredth the size of a cell, on predetermined spots, each on a single cell. Molecules coating the surfaces of the nanowires then triggered a biochemical cascade of actions only in the cell where the wire touched, without affecting other cells nearby. The researchers say this technique could lead to better ways of studying individual cells or even cell parts, and eventually could produce novel methods of delivering medication.

Indeed, the techniques not relying on this new nanowire-based technology either are not very precise, leading to stimulation of multiple cells, or require complex biochemical alterations of the cells. With the new technique the researchers can, for instance, target cells that have cancer properties (higher cell division rate or abnormal morphology), while sparing their healthy neighbors.

“One of the biggest challenges in cell biology is the ability to manipulate the cell environment in as precise a way as possible,” said principal investigator Andre Levchenko, an associate professor of biomedical engineering in Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering. In previous studies, Levchenko has used lab-on-a-chip or microfluidic devices to manipulate cell behavior. But, he said, lab-on-a-chip methods are not as precise as researchers would like them to be. “In microfluidic chips, if you alter the cell environment, it affects all the cells at the same time,” he said.

Such is not the case with the gold nanowires, which are metallic cylinders a few hundred nanometers or smaller in diameter. Just as the unsuspecting sports spectator would feel only a light touch from a toothpick being dropped on the head, the cell reacts only to the molecules released from the nanowire in one very precise place where the wire touches the cell’s surface.

With contributions from Chia-Ling Chien, a professor of physics and astronomy in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Robert Cammarata, a professor of materials science and engineering in the Whiting School, the team developed nanowires coated with a molecule called tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF?), a substance released by pathogen-gobbling macrophages, commonly called white blood cells. Under certain cellular conditions, the presence of TNF? triggers cells to switch on genes that help fight infection, but TNF? also is capable of blocking tumor growth and halting viral replication.

Exposure to too much TNF?, however, causes an organism to go into a potentially lethal state called septic shock, Levchenko said. Fortunately, TNF? stays put once it is released from the wire to the cell surface, and because the effect of TNF? is localized, the tiny bit delivered by the wire is enough to trigger the desired cellular response. Much the same thing happens when TNF? is excreted by a white blood cell.

Additionally, the coating of TNF? gives the nanowire a negative charge, making the wire easier to maneuver via the two perpendicular electrical fields of the “tweezer” device, a technique developed by Donglei Fan as part of her Johns Hopkins doctoral research in materials science and engineering. “The electric tweezers were initially developed to assemble, transport and rotate nanowires in solution,” Cammarata said. “Donglei then showed how to use the tweezers to produce patterned nanowire arrays as well as construct nanomotors and nano-oscillators. This new work with Dr. Levchenko’s group demonstrates just how extremely versatile a technique it is.”

To test the system, the team cultured cervical cancer cells in a dish. Then, using electrical fields perpendicular to one another, they were able to zap the nanowires into a pre-set spot and plop them down in a precise location. “In this way, we can predetermine the path that the wires will travel and deliver a molecular payload to a single cell among many, and even to a specific part of the cell,” Levchenko said.

During the course of this study, the team also established that the desired effect generated by the nanowire-delivered TNF? was similar to that experienced by a cell in a living organism.

The team members envision many possibilities for this method of subcellular molecule delivery. “For example, there are many other ways to trigger the release of the molecule from the wires: photo release, chemical release, temperature release. Furthermore, one could attach many molecules to the nanowires at the same time,” Levchenko said. He added that the nanowires can be made much smaller, but said that for this study the wires were made large enough to see with optical microscopy.

Ultimately, Levchenko sees the nanowires becoming a useful tool for basic research. “With these wires, we are trying to mimic the way that cells talk to each other,” he said. “They could be a wonderful tool that could be used in fundamental or applied research.” Drug delivery applications could be much further off. However, Levchenko said, “If the wires retain their negative charge, electrical fields could be used to manipulate and maneuver their position in the living tissue.”

The lead authors for this Nature Nanotechnology article were Fan, a former postdoctoral fellow in the departments of materials science and engineering and in physics and astronomy; and Zhizhong Yin, a former postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. The co-authors included Raymond Cheong, a doctoral student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering; and Frank Q. Zhu, a former doctoral student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Regarding the faculty members’ participation, Chien led the group that developed the electric tweezers technique and collaborated with Levchenko on its biological applications.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Beyond academia and industry

Penelope Lewis, acquisitions editor at the American Chemical Society, spoke at the summer’s second Professional Development Seminar hosted by The Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) on June 30 at 11 a.m. in Maryland Hall 110.

Penelope Lewis, acquisitions editor at the American Chemical Society (Photo: Mary Spiro)

Lewis discussed her experience as a scientist making the transition to non-profit, scholarly publishing.

As a PhD candidate, she felt she had only two options: academia or industry. She cautioned against having “too much of a single-minded focus,” as students can get “wrapped up in studying or getting stuck in the lab.” Lewis stressed the importance of having a broad outlook and being involved in a variety of activities to know where one’s true skills and interests lie.

Penelope Lewis advocated for an interactive and investigative approach to understanding career development: “My main piece of advice is to keep your eyes and ears open when considering different careers.” Academic publishing allowed Lewis to combine her interest in writing (she minored in English) with her love of science.

“Being able to communicate your research findings and their significance is such a critical skill. It is necessary not only for securing grants and publishing papers, but also as part of a responsibility that scientists and engineers have to act as good ambassadors for science, and to transfer their excitement and understanding to the public. This is especially important in newer fields like nanotechnology,” she said.

Penelope Lewis has a BS in Chemistry (English Minor) from Indiana University, a Chemistry PhD from Pennsylvania State University, and was a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University.

For more information about INBT’s professional development seminars, click here.

Story by Sarah Gubara, Senior, Psychology, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences