Gerecht and Mao to join INBT leadership effective January 1

The Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) recently announced that Sharon Gerecht and Hai-Quan Mao have been appointed as associate directors, effective January 1, 2016.

“The addition of Gerecht and Mao to the Institute’s leadership team will be crucial in developing new research areas,” says director Peter C. Searson, the Joseph R. and Lynn C. Reynolds Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at the Whiting School.


Hai-Quan Mao and Sharon Gerecht join INBT as associate directors in 2016

Associate director Denis Wirtz, Vice Provost for Research and the Theophilus H. Smoot Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering adds, “Their broad research interests and forward-thinking vision will contribute to shaping the institute’s future.”

Both Gerecht and Mao are engaged in collaborative projects with investigators in Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and the university’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Gerecht, the Kent Gordon Croft Investment Management Faculty Scholar and an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, has been a member of the INBT since arriving at Johns Hopkins in 2007. Gerecht’s research interests include stem cell differentiation, biomaterials development and tissue engineering approaches for regenerative medicine and cancer. In 2015, Gerecht received the inaugural President’s Frontier Award from Johns Hopkins University, in recognition of her scholarly achievements and exceptional promise.

Mao, a professor of materials science and engineering, has been active in INBT since its inception in 2006.  Mao holds joint appointments in the Translational Tissue Engineering Center in the School of Medicine and the Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute. His research focuses on creating nanofiber matrix platforms to direct stem cell expansion and differentiation, nanomaterials to modulate the immunoenvironment and promote neural regeneration, and developing nanoparticle systems to deliver plasmid DNA, siRNA, vaccines and other therapeutic agents.

“INBT has been instrumental in advancing science and engineering in critically important areas of research,” says Ed Schlesinger, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering. “An additional manifestation of the INBT’s success and growth is the astonishingly talented faculty who are part of the institute and who are willing and able to take on leadership roles. I have no doubt that in their new roles Sharon and Hai-Quan will help advance the INBT’s mission and its stellar reputation.”

INBT was launched in 2006 with support from Senator Barbara Mikulski to promote multidisciplinary research at the interface of nanotechnology and medicine.  The institute, with more than 250 affiliated faculty members from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, Whiting School of Engineering, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, School of Education, Bloomberg School of Public Heath, and the Applied Physics Laboratory, is home to several center grants and numerous education, training, and outreach programs.

All press inquiries about this program or about INBT in general should be directed to Mary Spiro, INBT’s science writer and media relations director at

Giddens Inaugural Professorial Lecture Series features all INBT faculty

In 1993, the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University started a tradition to honor faculty members who had been newly promoted to full professors through a special lecture series named for the school’s fifth dean. The Don P. Giddens Inaugural Professorial Lecture Series this fall features three faculty affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. Each will take place in different auditoriums on the Homewood campus and begin at 3 p.m. They are free and open to the Hopkins community, but seating in each location is limited. Check it out.

Monday Sept. 15, Mason Hall, 3-5 p.m.Fall IPL lecture poster

David Gracias, Russell Croft Faculty Scholar, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering

Big Ideas in a Small World

Nine orders of magnitude separate humans from the nanometer length scale – much of what is hidden from the naked eye. Professor Gracias discusses how engineering three-dimensional devices at these tiny length scales promises revolutionary advances in optics, electronics and medicine.

Tuesday, Oct. 14, Gilman 50, 3-5 p.m.

Hai-Quan Mao, professor of materials science and engineering

Designer Materials for Tissue and Therapeutic Engineering

New materials with tailored structural and functional characteristics can advance the ways medical treatments are delivered to combat diseases and repair damaged tissue. Professor Mao chronicles several case studies about recent innovations in the development of polymeric nanomaterials to enhance stem cell expansion and differentiations and to improve gene medicine delivery.

Thursday, November 6, Hodson Hall 210, 3-5 p.m.

Tza-Huei “Jeff” Wang, professor of mechanical engineering

Discerning Rare Disease Biomarkers by Micro- and Nanotechnologies

Microfluidics, nanoparticles and single molecule spectroscopy hold great promise for advancing the molecular analysis of diseases. Professor Wang will explicate how these highly sensitive tools can enhance the detection of genetic and epigenetic markers for cancer, as well as assist in diagnosing infectious diseases more swiftly and accurately.




What’s on the horizon for regenerative medicine?

Organo-electric nanowires.  (Tovar Lab/JHU)

Organo-electric nanowires. (Tovar Lab/JHU)

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 Christian Pick, a doctoral candidate in the chemical and biomolecular engineering laboratory of Joelle Frechette. Look for other symposium summaries on the INBT blog.

The fundamental goal of regenerative medicine is to allow the body to restore normal function to damaged or diseased tissues. Tissue scaffolds provide a structure for cells to grow on to accomplish this task. The pinnacle of scaffold function would be for the tissue grown from a scaffold to be completely indistinguishable from natural, undamaged tissue.

In order to improve scaffolds, researchers need to better understand how scaffolds interact with the body. Peter Gabriele, Director of Emerging Technology at Secant Medical, discussed FT-IR microscopy,  which is a unique tool that can help researchers with this very task.

Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy is a powerful technique for analyzing the chemical identity of materials. FTIR spectroscopy has been used for years in forensic analysis for identifying unknown samples. FTIR microscopy combines the functionality of FTIR spectroscopy with optical microscopy.

For the field of regenerative medicine, this means that the surface functionality of a scaffold can be mapped and studied throughout its entire lifetime: from production through degradation in-vivo. For instance, FTIR microscopy can be used to analyze surface modifications made to a scaffold during fabrication.

Additionally, it can be used to track tissue formation in implanted scaffolds. As an example, Mr. Gabriele described studies on “biorubber” or poly(glycerol sebacate) (PGS). FTIR microscopy has been used to identify collagen integration within the polymer during implantation as well as map the erosion of the material once implanted. Through the use of tools such as FT-IR microscopy, researchers can continue to expand the functionality of tissue scaffolds.

Secant Medical

Watch a video about INBT’s current research efforts in the realm of regenerative medicine here.

DNA folded into shapes offers alternative gene delivery vehicle

DNA molecules (light green) packaged into nanoparticles of different shapes using a polymer with two different segments. Cartoon illustrations created by Wei Qu, Northwestern University and Martin Rietveld, Johns Hopkins /INBT. Microscopic images created by Xuan Jiang, Johns Hopkins University.

Using snippets of DNA as building blocks to create nanoscale rods, worms and spheres, researchers at Johns Hopkins and Northwestern universities have devised a means of delivering gene therapy that avoids some of the undesirable aspects of using viruses to deliver genes to treat disease. The shape and size of the DNA-based nanoparticle also affected how well the genes were delivered.

Worm shapes, for example, were particularly effective.

“The worm-shaped particles resulted in 1,600 times more gene expression in the liver cells than the other shapes,” said Hai-Quan Mao, an associate professor ofmaterials science and engineering in Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering. “This means that producing nanoparticles in this particular shape could be the more efficient way to deliver gene therapy to these cells.”

This study was published in the Oct. 12 online edition of Advanced Materials.

Initial funding for the research came from a seed grant provided by the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, of which Mao is an affiliate. The Johns Hopkins-Northwestern partnership research was supported by a National Institutes of Health grant.

Read the entire Johns Hopkins press release by Phil Sneiderman (JHU) and Megan Fellman (Northwestern) here.



Shaping up nanoparticles for DNA delivery to cancer cells

Hai-Quan Mao, 2012 Johns Hopkins Nano-Bio Symposium. Photo by Mary Spiro

To treat cancer, scientists and clinicians have to kill cancer cells while minimally harming the healthy tissues surrounding them. However, because cancer cells are derived from healthy cells, targeting only the cancer cells is exceedingly difficult. According to Dr. Hai-Quan Mao of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the “key challenge is between point of delivery and point of target tissue” when it comes to delivering cancer therapeutics. Dr. Mao spoke about the difficulties of specifically delivering drugs or genetic material to cancer cells at the 2012 Johns Hopkins University Nano-Bio Symposium. Scientists had originally thought they could create a “magic bullet” to patrol for cancer cells in the body. However, this has not been feasible; only 5 percent of injected nanoparticles reach the targeted tumor using current delivery techniques. Simply put, scientists need to figure out how to inject a treatment into the body and then selectively direct that treatment to cancer cells if the treatments are to work to their full potential.

With this in mind, Dr. Mao and his research team aim to optimize nanoparticle design to improve delivery to tumor cells by making the nanoparticles more stable in the body’s circulatory system. Mao’s group uses custom polymers and DNA scaffolds to create nanoparticles. The DNA serves dual purposes, as a building block for the particles and as a signal for cancer cells to express certain genes (for example, cell suicide genes). By tuning the polarity of the solvent used to fabricate the nanoparticles, the group can control nanoparticle shape, forming spheres, ellipsoids, or long “worms” while leaving everything else about the nanoparticles constant. This allows them to test the effects of nanoparticle size on gene delivery. Interestingly, “worms” appear more stable in the blood stream of mice and are therefore better able to deliver targeted DNA. Studies of this type will allow intelligent nanoparticle design by illuminating the key aspects for efficient tumor targeting.

Currently, Dr. Mao’s group is extending their fabrication methods to deliver other payloads to cancer cells. Small interfering ribonucleic acid (siRNA), which can suppress expression of certain genes, can also be incorporated into nanoparticles. Finally, Mao noted that the “worm”-shaped nanoparticles created by the group look like naturally occurring virus particles, including the Ebola and Marburg viruses. In the future, the group hopes to use their novel polymers and fabrication techniques to see if shape controls virus targeting to specific tissues in the body. This work could have important applications in virus treatment.

Story by Colin Paul, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins with interests in microfabrication and cancer metastasis.