Six years on my fantastic nano-bio voyage, and counting

Back in 2003, several jobs before I came to work at Johns Hopkins University, a coworker asked me if I had ever heard of nanotechnology. I had heard the term, certainly, but I wasn’t sure what it was or what it could do. We came to the conclusion that nanotech was probably something like the technology presented in that 1960s science fiction movie “Fantastic Voyage”, in which a team of medical doctors where shrunken, placed in a capsule and injected into a man’s bloodstream in an attempt to treat him, except you know, not LITERALLY like that. Then I forgot all about nano. I never imagined it would have a major impact on my life, let alone anyone else’s.

Then, in 2007 I was hired to be the science writer for the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT), and I had to get up to speed on all this nano-bio stuff in a hurry. I learned that nano is at the scale of just a few atoms and that a nanometer is as small as 1/100,000th the width of the human hair. Through discussions with the 200 plus researchers affiliated with INBT, I can honestly say that I never imagined that nanotech could be or would be used in some of the ways that it has been. Most references on nanotechnology mention its use in electronics such as cell phones or in materials for sports gear. You can even find nano in cosmetics and stain repellant clothing.

Here at Hopkins, researchers are going far beyond materials and electronics uses. Nanotechnology is being developed for drug delivery, to trigger the immune system to fight disease, as scaffolds for tissue engineering, and to study cancer at the single cell level, among many other things. Each month, faculty members affiliated with INBT publish leading-edge research on nano-related science in peer-reviewed journals. All the possible avenues for its use can be overwhelming. There are also some INBT researchers investigating the potential risks from nanobiotechnology alongside the numerous benefits.

To tell you about these findings, we have established a blog, newsletters and the Nano-Bio Magazine. We have engaging and educational animations from the INBT animation studio, directed by Martin Rietveld. And each summer I teach a course for our science and engineering graduate students that trains them to create videos about their work, which we later show at the INBT Film Fest. Every week, we are developing new ways to get the word out on what INBT is doing and how its work can improve our lives.

Ten years ago, I never imagined nanotechnology would have a major impact on my life, let alone anyone else’s. But nanotechnology and nanoBIOtechnology are going to be around for a while, although most people won’t think about it unless and until they have some reason to confront it. The potential of nanobiotechnology for solving problems in medicine and healthcare has yet to be fully realized. I would like to think that in my lifetime we would see the direct and tangible benefits of nanotechnology in medicine at the patient care level. I think that is already starting to happen. I am glad to be part of this “fantastic voyage” of discovery at Johns Hopkins. I hope that what we do here to communicate these discoveries to you helps make you feel like you are part of that journey, too.

Mary Spiro is the science writer and blog maven for Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

Check out our videos and animations on INBT’s YouTube Channel.

Read Nano-Bio Magazine.

Go on a Fantastic Voyage!

 

 

Gerecht research featured in Baltimore Sun science section

Science journalism is coming back to The Baltimore Sun, or so it would seem. Evidence of this comes in the form of this well written article by Arthur Hirsch about work in the laboratory of Sharon Gerecht, associate professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and an affiliated faculty member of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

Photo  from The Baltimore Sun.

Photo from The Baltimore Sun.

The Gerecht lab is working on ways to coax stem cells into becoming tiny micro blood vessels, the kind crucial to feeding nutrients to new or transplanted tissue. Without these smallest branches of blood vessel, tissue cannot thrive.

Hirsch does an excellent job at not only deftly reporting Gerecht’s findings but beautifully describing what the vessels look like and the overall significance of the work. But this is not a critique of Hirsch’s writing. I am unqualified to do that. What this IS, is a tip of the hat to The Baltimore Sun for a) actually having a science story that was about the work of local scientists and b) assigning an extremely competent writer to produce the work.

I say this, because for the last 10 years or so, there seems to have been a steady decline in science reporting in by local media. The decline was in the quantity as well as in the quality. The New York Times still had their Tuesday Science Times, and a few other major dailies have managed to keep their science sections alive. But overall, there was a sharp and rapid decline in science journalist positions at smaller newspapers. Entire departments were disassembled. Bureaus shut down. Science stories, if they were written, were about “news you could use” and were relegated to newbie writers, many of who had little or no scientific understanding. Many former science reporters moved into the blogosphere or took up public relations jobs, like I did.

But the Gerecht story was about basic science, not about some new gadget that could fix this or that right now. It was about the scientific process and “eureka” moments. It gave insight into how scientists work, and even more importantly, how LONG it takes to arrive at a significant finding. (In this case, it has taken Gerecht 10 years to arrive at these findings.)

Maybe there is hope for the future of science journalism at the local level yet.

Check out The Sun story here:

Lab-grown blood vessels made with less ado

Mary Spiro is the science writer and blog maven for Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. All comments can be sent to mspiro@jhu.edu.