Nanotech collaboration between Johns Hopkins and Belgium had INBT roots

Johns Hopkins Medicine recently announced exciting news of a joint collaborative agreement with IMEC, a leading nano-electronics research center based in Belgium. The objective of the partnership is to advance applications of silicon nanotechnology in health care, beginning with development of a point-of-care device to enable a broad range of clinical tests to be performed outside the laboratory. This unique venture will combine Johns Hopkins clinical and research expertise with IMEC’s technical and engineering capabilities.

TIMEC clean roomhe two organizations plan to forge strategic ties with additional collaborators across the value chain in the health care and technology sectors. Development of a next generation ”lab-on-a-chip”, making diagnostic testing faster and easier for applications such as disease monitoring and management, disease surveillance, rural health care and clinical trials, will form the initial focus of the partnership. Denis Wirtz, Associate Director of INBT, will serve on the Advisory Board for the collaboration.

The roots of the new Hopkins-IMEC partnership were initiated over five years ago when Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) established a collaborative relationship with IMEC. Since its inception in 2009, the INBT-IMEC partnership has blossomed into a number of collaborative projects, which enabled both graduate and undergraduate students from Hopkins to broaden their research experience with internships at IMEC’s state-of-the-art laboratories in Leuven, Belgium (with some students from IMEC also interning at Hopkins).

These projects were built around Hopkins/INBT research interests in nanobiotechnology such as controlled drug delivery, microfluidics, stem cell platforms and neural networks to mention a few. IMEC’s massive expertise in nanofabrication, darkfield and lens-free microscopy, neuro-electronics and lithography provides a huge opportunity for JHU researchers to evaluate translational pathways for basic discoveries.

Initial discussions about a broader relationship between the two institutions originated with an INBT-IMEC team exploring possible additional opportunities building on our existing partnership. A visit to Hopkins by senior IMEC management in August 2012 was organized by INBT, and laid the groundwork for subsequent next steps which included a University-wide team. We are delighted to have identified an opportunity for Hopkins to create a collaborative model to develop potentially revolutionary new techniques combining the unique advantages of silicon technology to a new generation of diagnostics and cures.

Separate from this recent collaboration, INBT has hosted students to conduct research at IMEC since 2009. Funding to support students abroad has come from INBT and the National Science Foundation International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program.

Read the official announcement from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine here.

Check out the INBT/IMEC blog.

Read about the INBT/IMEC IRES program here.

By Tom Fekete, INBT director of corporate partnerships.

 

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.

High school research internships keep skills fresh

For most teenagers, finding a summer job is almost a rite of passage into adulthood. It’s a chance to learn responsibility and time management and practice how to get along with coworkers. It also helps earn money for college or fun. A group of specially selected teens, however, were able to take the concept of the summer job a step further as summer research scholars in Johns Hopkins University laboratories.

High schooler Christopher Miller with his graduate student mentor Hoku West-Foyle. (Photo by Mary Spiro)

High schooler Christopher Miller with his graduate student mentor Hoku West-Foyle. (Photo by Mary Spiro)

The Summer Academic Research Experience (SARE) program, an opportunity funded in part by Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology and the School of Medicine, trains students from “disadvantaged” homes throughout the state. Some students may have a parent in prison or struggling with addiction. Others may face extreme financial hardship or even have been homeless.

SARE scholars have a chance to overcome obstacles to academic success by working in academia under the guidance of a mentor. They improve their writing and mathematics skills through tutoring. And they learn how to keep good laboratory records, how to follow safety protocols, and how to make a professional presentation.

“This is way better than flipping burgers,” exclaimed Stephanie Keyaka, as she prepared an image of a Western Blot performed on Drosophila eye genes. Keyaka, a tenth grader from The SEED School of Maryland, the state’s only public boarding school. She studied rhodopsin in the eyes of flies in the lab of professor Craig Montell during the summer of 2012.

SARE, launched in 2009 through a collaboration between INBT and School of Medicine cell biology associate professor Doug Robinson, recruits students from the private nonprofit Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore, from The SEED School, and now also from The Crossroads School, operated by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation. While the partnership with Boys Hope Girls Hope has been in place from the beginning, working with The SEED School and The Crossroads School has expanded the potential pool of qualified and interested applicants. “Expanding the applicant pool makes the program more competitive, which is a worthwhile experience—to have to compete for something,” Robinson said.

During their time at Hopkins, each SARE scholar focuses on a mini research project that advances the larger goals of the lab where they are placed. No prior laboratory work is expected, and the learning curve is steep. But with mentoring from graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the scholars find their way. At the end of the summer, the scholars present their findings in a poster session for their peers, faculty and staff.

“At the beginning of the summer, I didn’t know what the heck I was talking about, but now I get it!” laughed Christopher Miller, a tenth grader from The SEED School. Miller studied the motor protein myosin in the Robinson lab.

Miller’s mentor, cell biology doctoral student Hoku West-Foyle, said working with students during the summer helps to re-energize the lab. “At first, it is a bit of extra work, but it gives you teaching experience, and when you are explaining your project to other people, it helps to reinforce why the larger research question matters. It fires you up to work harder,” West-Foyle said.

Shaolin Holloman, an eleventh grader at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Girls Hope scholar, worked in the cell biology lab of professor Carolyn Machamer. Her project sought to understand why the SARS coronavirus localizes to the Golgi apparatus of the cell.

“I liked the work experience because we actually got to do hands-on experiments,” said Hollomon, who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon. “The biggest challenge for me was to keep up with my weekly essays, my summer reading and the work in the lab.”

Robinson hopes the program can become self-sustaining and even scalable to accept more students. “We are at a juncture where we are seeking additional funding, so we are systematically assessing our impact,” Robinson said. One would judge that the SARE program’s impact is significant, since all five alumni who have graduated from high school, or who will do so this spring, have gone on to university, Robinson reported. Two students have declared biology as their major and the other three still in high school are interested in science, technology, mathematics or health-related disciplines. Five new scholars will join SARE this summer.

Khalek Kirkland, The SEED School headmaster said summer internships of this kind are important to help keep students motivated and on track academically. “We do believe in the ‘summer brain drain,’ in that students do lose something over the summer,” Kirkland explained. “Doug and I are in talks about writing a grant together to expand the program not only to SEED School students, but to additional students as well.”

Anyone with interest in supporting the efforts of the SARE program can contact Douglas Robinson via email a drobin15@jhmi.edu.

Story by Mary Spiro

More on the SARE program:

Lab coats are summer gear for high school researchers 

Fraley nets $500K Burroughs Wellcome Fund award for microfluidics work

Stephanie Fraley (Photo: Homewood Photography)

Stephanie Fraley (Photo: Homewood Photography)

A Johns Hopkins research fellow who is developing novel approaches to quickly identify bacterial DNA and human microRNA has won the prestigious $500,000 Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) Career Award at the Scientific Interfaces. The prize, distributed over the next five years, helps transition newly minted PhDs from postdoctoral work into their first faculty positions.

Stephanie Fraley is a postdoctoral fellow working with Samuel Yang, MD, in Emergency Medicine/Infectious Disease at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Jeff Wang, PhD, in Biomedical Engineering with appointments in the Whiting School of Engineering and the medical school. The goal of her work is to develop engineering technologies that can diagnose and guide treatment of sepsis, a leading cause of death worldwide, while simultaneously leading to improved understanding of how human cells and bacterial cells interact.

“Sepsis is an out of control immune response to infection,” Fraley said. “We are developing tools that are single molecule sensitive and can rapidly sort and detect bacterial and host response markers associated with sepsis. However, our devices are universal in that they can be applied to many other diseases.”

Fraley is using lab-on-chip technology, also known as microfluidics, to overcome the challenges of identifying the specific genetic material of bacteria and immune cells. Her technology aims to sort the genetic material down to the level of individual sequences so that each can be quantified with single molecule sensitivity.

“Bacterial DNA is on everything and contamination is everywhere, so trying to find the ones associated with sepsis is like the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack,” Fraley said. “With microfluidics, we can separate out all the bacterial DNA, so instead of a needle in a haystack, we have just the needles.”

Another advantage to Fraley’s novel technology is that it will assess all the diverse bacterial DNA present in a sample, without presuming which genetic material is important. “Bacteria are constantly evolving and becoming drug resistant,” she said. “With this technology, we can see all the bacterial DNA that is present individually and not just the strains we THINK we need to look for.”

Fraley’s award will follow her wherever her career takes her. The first two years of the prize fund postdoctoral training and that last three years help launch her professional career in academia. During the application process, she had to make a short presentation on her proposal to BWF’s panel of experts. “It was like the television show ‘Shark Tank’ but for scientists,” she laughs. “ The panelists gave me many helpful suggestions on my idea.”

Fraley earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and her doctorate in chemical and biomolecular engineering with Denis Wirtz, professor and director of Johns Hopkins Physical Sciences-Oncology Center. Wirtz is associate director for the Institute for NanoBioTechnology and Yang and Wang also are INBT affiliated faculty members.

BWF’s Career Awards at the Scientific Interface provides funding to bridge advanced postdoctoral training and the first three years of faculty service. These awards are intended to foster the early career development of researchers who have transitioned or are transitioning from undergraduate and/or graduate work in the physical/mathematical/computational sciences or engineering into postdoctoral work in the biological sciences, and who are dedicated to pursuing a career in academic research. These awards are open to U.S. and Canadian citizens or permanent residents as well as to U.S. temporary residents.

Coated nanoparticles move easily into brain tissue

Real-time imaging of nanoparticles green) coated with polyethylene-glycol (PEG), a hydrophilic, non-toxic polymer, penetrate within normal rodent brain. Without the PEG coating, negatively charged, hydrophobic particles (red) of a similar size do not penetrate. Image by Elizabeth Nance, Kurt Sailor, Graeme Woodworth.

Johns Hopkins researchers report they are one step closer to having a drug-delivery system flexible enough to overcome some key challenges posed by brain cancer and perhaps other maladies affecting that organ. In a report published online Aug. 29 in Science Translational Medicine, the Johns Hopkins team says its bioengineers have designed nanoparticles that can safely and predictably infiltrate deep into the brain when tested in rodent and human tissue.

“We are pleased to have found a way to prevent drug-embedded particles from sticking to their surroundings so that they can spread once they are in the brain,” said Justin Hanes, Lewis J. Ort Professor of Ophthalmology and project leader in the Johns Hopkins Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence.

Standard protocols following the removal of brain tumors include chemotherapy directly applied to the surgical site to kill any cancer cells left behind. This method, however, is only partially effective because it is hard to administer a dose of chemotherapy high enough to sufficiently penetrate the tissue to be effective and low enough to be safe for the patient and healthy tissue. Furthermore, previous versions of drug-loaded nanoparticles typically adhere to the surgical site and do not penetrate into the tissue.

These newly engineered nanoparticles overcome this challenge. Elizabeth Nance, a graduate student in chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Graeme Woodworth, suspected that drug penetration might be improved if drug-delivery nanoparticles interacted minimally with their surroundings. Nance achieved this by coating nano-scale beads with a dense layer of PEG or poly(ethylene glycol). The team then injected the coated beads, which had been marked with a fluorescent tag,  into slices of rodent and human brain tissue. They found that a dense coating of PEG allowed larger beads to penetrate the tissue, even those beads that were nearly twice the size previously thought to be the maximum possible for penetration within the brain. They then tested these beads in live rodent brains and found the same results.

Elizabeth Nance. Photo by Ming Yang.

The results were similar when biodegradable nanoparticles carrying the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel and coated with PEG were used. “It’s really exciting that we now have particles that can carry five times more drug, release it for three times as long and penetrate farther into the brain than before,” said Nance. “The next step is to see if we can slow tumor growth or recurrence in rodents.”

Woodworth added that the team “also wants to optimize the particles and pair them with drugs to treat other brain diseases, like multiple sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.” Another goal for the team is to be able to administer their nanoparticles intravenously, which is research they have already begun.

Additional authors on the paper include Kurt Sailor, Ting-Yu Shih, Qingguo Xu, Ganesh Swaminathan, Dennis Xiang, and Charles Eberhart, all from The Johns Hopkins University.

Story adapted from an original press release by Cathy Kolf.

 

Additional news coverage of this research can be found at the following links:

Nanotechnology/Bio & Medicine

Death and Taxes Mag

New Scientist Health

Nanotech Web

Portugese news release (in Portugese)

German Public Radio (in German)

Tackling the brain’s barrier

Watch this video now. Click the image.

Much like a sentry at a border crossing, the network of tiny blood vessels surrounding the brain only allows a few important molecules in or out. Of course, there is good reason for this. The brain controls the senses, motor skills, breathing, and heart rate, as well as being the seat of thoughts and emotional experiences. Just as our tough plated skull offers a physical armor for the brain, the blood-brain barrier shields our brain from potentially harmful substances at the molecular level.

“Despite its powerful role in controlling bodily functions, the brain is extremely sensitive to chemical changes in environment,” said Peter Searson, director of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) and lead on the Blood Brain Barrier Working Group (BBBWG). The BBBWG is a collaboration between INBT and the Brain Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Oxygen, sugars (such as glucose), and amino acids used to build proteins can enter the brain from the bloodstream with no trouble, while waste products, such as carbon dioxide, exit the brain just as easily. But for most everything else, there’s just no getting past this specialized hurdle. In fact, the blood-brain barrier protects the brain so effectively that it also prevents helpful drugs and therapeutic agents from reaching diseased areas of the brain. And because scientists know very little about the blood-brain barrier, discovering ways to overcome the blockade has been a challenge.

“We still don’t know very much about the structure and function of the blood-brain barrier,” Searson said. “Because we don’t know how the blood-brain barrier works, it presents a critical roadblock in developing treatment for diseases of the central nervous system, including Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s, autism, brain cancer, Huntington’s disease, meningitis, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), neuro-AIDS, Parkinson’s, and stroke. Treatable brain disorders are limited to depression, schizophrenia, chronic pain, and epilepsy. If we had a better understanding of how the blood-brain barrier worked, we would be in a better position to develop treatments for many diseases of the brain,” Searson said. But he added, even with a better understanding of the blood-brain barrier, humans cannot be used to study new therapies.

One way the BBBWG plans to surmount this roadblock is by creating an artificially engineered (or simulated) blood-brain barrier. An engineered artificial blood-brain barrier would allow researchers to conduct studies that simulate trauma to or diseases of the blood-brain barrier, such as stroke, infection, or cancer.

“It would also give us insight into understanding of the role of the blood-brain barrier in aging,” said Searson. Drug discovery and the development of new therapies for central nervous system diseases would be easier with an artificial blood-brain barrier and certainly safer than animal or human testing. Such an artificial membrane could be used as a platform to screen out drugs used to treat maladies outside the brain, but which have unwanted side effects, such as drowsiness.

The creation of such a platform will require the skills of a multidisciplinary team that includes engineers, physicists, neuroscientists and clinicians working together to bring new ideas and new perspectives, Searson added, and will build on recent advances in stem cell engineering and the development of new biomaterials. Current members of the BBBWG include researchers from the departments of neuroscience, anesthesiology, psychiatry, pathology and pharmacology from the Hopkins School of Medicine and from the departments of mechanical engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering and materials science from the Whiting School of Engineering.

One member of that multidisciplinary team is Lew Romer, MD, associate professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Cell Biology, Biomedical Engineering, and Pediatrics at the Center for Cell Dynamics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“At a cellular level, the focus here is on the adhesive interface of the neurovascular unit – the place where the microcirculation meets the complex parenchyma (or functional surface) of the brain,” Romer said. “This is a durable but delicate and highly specialized region of cell-cell interaction that is responsive to biochemical and mechanical cues.”

Romer said work on the blood-brain barrier is a “fascinating and essential frontier in cell biology and translational medicine, and one that clinicians struggle to understand and work with at the bedsides of some of our sickest and most challenging patients from the ICU’s to the Oncology clinics. Development of an in vitro blood-brain barrier model system” that could be used in molecular biology and engineering manipulations would provide investigators with a powerful window into this vital interface,” Romer added.

Visit the Blood-Brain Barrier Working Group website here.

Watch a student video about current blood-brain barrier research here.

Story by Mary Spiro first appears in the 2012 edition of Nano-Bio Magazine.

Killing prostate cancer cells with out harming the healthy cells

Experimenting with human prostate cancer cells and mice, cancer imaging experts at Johns Hopkins say they have developed a method for finding and killing malignant cells while sparing healthy ones.

The method, called “theranostic” imaging, targets and tracks potent drug therapies directly and only to cancer cells. It relies on binding an originally inactive form of drug chemotherapy, with an enzyme, to specific proteins on tumor cell surfaces and detecting the drug’s absorption into the tumor. The binding of the highly specific drug-protein complex, or nanoplex, to the cell surface allows it to get inside the cancerous cell, where the enzyme slowly activates the tumor-killing drug.

Researchers say their findings, published in the journal American Chemical Society Nano online Aug. 6, are believed to be the first to show that chemotherapies can be precisely controlled at the molecular level to maximize their effectiveness against tumors, while also minimizing their side effects.

Senior study investigator Zaver Bhujwalla, Ph.D., a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Kimmel Cancer Center, notes that a persistent problem with current chemotherapy is that it attacks all kinds of cells and tissues, not just cancerous ones.

In the theranostic imaging experiments, overseen by Bhujwalla and study co-investigator Martin Pomper, M.D., Ph.D., investigators directed drugs only to cancer cells, specifically those with prostate-specific membrane antigen, or PSMA cell surface proteins. Both Pomper and Bhujwalla are affiliated faculty members of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

“Our results show a non-invasive imaging approach to following and delivering targeted therapy to any cancer that expresses PSMA,” says Bhujwalla, who also serves as director of the Johns Hopkins In Vivo Cellular and Molecular Imaging Center (ICMIC), where the theranostic imaging studies were developed.

Bhujwalla says the new technique potentially will work against any cancer in which tumors elevate production of certain cell surface proteins. Examples would include breast cancers with HER-2/neu and CXCR4 proteins, and some liver, lung and kidney cancers also known to express particular proteins. She notes that PSMA is expressed in the vessels of most solid tumors, suggesting that the nanoplex reported in the latest study could be used in general to image and treat a variety of cancers.

In their latest series of experiments, primarily in mice injected with human prostate tumor cells, Bhujwalla and the Johns Hopkins team tested their ability to track with imaging devices the delivery of anti-cancer drugs directly to tumors. Some of the tumors comprised cells with PSMA, while other so-called control tumors had none. Included in the drug nanoplex were small strands of RNA, cell construction acids that can be used instead to block and turn down production of a well-known enzyme, choline kinase, whose levels usually rise with tumor growth. All nanoplex components were imaged inside the tumor, in addition to dropping choline kinase production, which decreased by 80 percent within 48 hours of nanoplex absorption into cells with ample PSMA. When researchers used antibodies to block the action of PSMA, down went the level of nanoplex uptake and drug activation in cancerous cells as measured by dimming of the image.

Different concentrations of the drug nanoplex, tagged with radioactive and fluorescent molecules, were mixed in the lab with prostate cancer tissue cells, some of which had extra PSMA and others which had none. Only those cells with extra PSMA showed nanoplex uptake, as measured by image intensity, which later decreased when PSMA-blocking chemicals were added (back to levels seen in cells with almost no PSMA).

Additional experiments involving injections of three different concentrations of the drug nanoplex showed no damage to other vital mouse organs, such as the kidney and liver, nor any uptick in the mouse immune system response.

“Our theranostic imaging approach shows how the best methods of detection and treatment can be combined to form highly specialized, more potent and safer forms of chemotherapy,” says Pomper, a professor at Johns Hopkins who also serves as an associate director at ICMIC.

He says that an important goal for theranostic imaging is to move it beyond standard chemotherapy that attacks one target molecule at a time.

“With theranostic imaging, we can attack multiple tumor targets, making it harder for the tumor to evade drug treatment,” says Pomper, who is already working with colleagues at Johns Hopkins to identify other molecular targets.

The most recent studies were performed at Johns Hopkins over two years, starting in 2010, with funding support from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. The corresponding grant numbers are P50-CA103175, RO1-CA138515 and RO1-CA134675.

In addition to Bhujwalla and Pomper, other Johns Hopkins researchers from the Russell H. Morgan Department of Radiology involved in this imaging study were lead investigators Zhihang Chen, Ph.D., and Mary-France Penet, Ph.D. Additional study co-investigators were Sridhar Nimmagadda, Ph.D.; Li Cong, Ph.D.; Sangeeta Banerjee, Ph.D.; Paul Winnard Jr., Ph.D.; Dmitri Artemov, Ph.D.; and Kristine Glunde, Ph.D.

Press release by David March

Therapeutic nanolex containing multi-modal imaging reporters targeted to prostate specific membrane antigen (PSMA), which is expressed on the cell surface of castrate resistant PCa. (Image by Chen et al. from ACS Nano 2012).

 

Nanoparticles slip through mucus barrier to protect against herpes virus

“Thick, sticky mucus layers limit effectiveness of drug delivery to mucosal tissues. Mucus-penetrating particles or MPPs (in red) are able to penetrate mucus, covering the entire surface of the mouse vagina (in blue). Improved distribution and retention of MPPs led to significantly increased protection in a mouse model for herpes simplex virus infection. Image by Laura Ensign.

Johns Hopkins researchers say they have demonstrated for the first time, in animals, that nanoparticles can slip through mucus to deliver drugs directly to tissue surfaces in need of protection.

The researchers used these mucus-penetrating particles, or MPPs, to protect against vaginal herpes infections in mice. The goal is to create similar MPPs to deliver drugs that protect humans against sexually transmitted diseases or even treat cancer.

“This is the first in vivo proof that MPPs can improve distribution, retention, and protection by a drug applied to a mucosal surface, said Justin Hanes, Ph.D., a professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute and director of the Center for Nanomedicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Hanes also is a principal investigator with the Johns Hopkins Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence. Results of his team’s experiments are described in the June 13 issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The moist mucosal surfaces of the body, like the eyes, lungs, intestines and genital tract, are protected from pathogens and toxins by layers of moist sticky mucus that is constantly secreted and shed, forming our outermost protective barrier.

“Although many people associate mucus with disgusting cold and cough symptoms, mucus is in fact a sticky barrier that helps keep you healthy,” says Laura Ensign, a doctoral student affiliated with the Center for Nanomedicine at the School of Medicine and with the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering. She is the lead author of the journal report.

Unfortunately, Ensign noted, mucus barriers also stop helpful drug delivery, especially conventional nanoparticles intended for sustained drug delivery. In a Johns Hopkins laboratory, researchers developed nanoparticles that do not stick to mucus so they can slip through to reach the cells on the mucosal surface, in this case the surface of the mouse vagina, she added.

Ensign explained that conventional nanoparticles actually stick to mucus before releasing their drug payload and are then removed when the mucus is replenished, often within minutes to hours. Working with researchers in the laboratory of Richard Cone, Ph.D., in the Department of Biophysics in the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Hanes team fabricated particles with surface chemistry that mimics a key feature of viruses that readily infect mucosal surfaces.

“Richard Cone’s lab found that viruses, such as the human papilloma virus, could diffuse through human cervical mucus as fast as they diffuse through water. These ‘slippery viruses’ have surfaces that are ‘water-loving,’ ” Hanes said. “In contrast, many nanoparticles intended to deliver drugs to mucosal surfaces are ‘mucoadhesive’ and ‘oil-loving,’ but these nanoparticles stick to the superficial layers of the mucus barrier, the layers that are most rapidly removed.”

To make their mucus-penetrating particles, the team transformed conventional ‘oil-loving’ nanoparticles by coating them with a substance used in many commercial pharmaceutical products: polyethylene glycol. PEG makes the particles “water-loving,” like the viruses that slip right through mucus.

“The key is that the nanoparticles, like viruses, have to be small enough to go through the openings in the mucus mesh, and also have surfaces that mucus can’t stick to. If you think about it,” said Ensign, “mucus sticks to almost everything.”

“Viruses have evolved over millions of years to become slippery pathogens that readily penetrate our protective mucus barriers,” said Cone, “and engineering nanoparticles that penetrate the mucus barrier just like viruses is proving to be a clever way to deliver drugs.”

Hanes emphasized that the MPPs provided greatly improved protective efficacy while at the same time reducing the effective dose of drug needed 10-fold. Furthermore, Hanes added, the MPPs “continue to supply drug for at least a day and provide nearly 100 percent coverage of the mucosal surface of the vagina and ectocervix” in their laboratory mice.

“We’ve shown that mucus-penetrating particles are safe for vaginal administration in mice. Our next move will be to show that they are safe for vaginal administration in humans,” Ensign said. “Now our laboratory currently is working on an MPP formulation of a drug that protects against HIV infection that we hope will be tested in humans.”

Their technology could lead to a once-daily treatment for preventing sexually transmitted diseases, for contraception and for treatment of cervico-vaginal disorders, Ensign said.

Ensign added that MPP technology has the potential to prevent a wide range of mucosal diseases and infections, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and cystic fibrosis,” Ensign said.

Additional authors on the paper include postdoctoral fellow Ying-Ying Wang and research specialist Timothy Hoen from the Department of Biophysics; former master’s student Terence Tse from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and Benjamin Tang, formerly of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and currently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Under a licensing agreement between Kala Pharmaceuticals and the Johns Hopkins University, Hanes is entitled to a share of royalties received by the university on sales of products used in the study.

Hanes and the university own Kala Pharmaceuticals stock, which is subject to certain restrictions under university policy. Hanes is also a founder, a director and a paid consultant to Kala Pharmaceuticals. The terms of this arrangement are being managed by The Johns Hopkins University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.”

Story by Mary Spiro

Additional news coverage of this research may be found at the following links:

Phys.org

WYPR: The Mucus Ruse

Scientific American

 

Hruban discusses challenges in pathology at INBT symposium

Dr. Ralph Hruban of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine at the INBT annual NanoBio Symposium. Photo by Mary Spiro

Pancreatic cancer is well known as one of the most malicious types of cancers. Seventy-five percent of people lose their battle with pancreatic cancer within a year of diagnosis and only 5 percent survive beyond five years.

“There is opportunity for nanotechnology to have an impact,” said Dr. Hruban as he highlighted the many challenges in improving detection and treatment of pancreatic cancers during his talk at the annual Nano-Bio Symposium hosted by Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology on May 4.

Pathologists have been able to determine many histological changes in cancerous pancreatic ducts and also many of the related genetic changes. The challenge is to translate these discoveries in pathology into novel diagnostic tools.

“Early detection is the best hope in fighting cancer,” said Hruban. Nanotechnology could allow for visualization of genetic changes and changes in protein expression in pancreatic lesions which would help in earlier detection.

Treatment of these pancreatic lesions could be better handled with more robust imaging and staining techniques. Thousands of CAT scans are taken at Johns Hopkins hospital every year and doctors began screening all of these CAT scans performed at the hospital to identify pancreatic cysts.

Even with the cysts identified, there is no way to tell if the cyst is benign or malignant without surgery. Hruban gave as an example a female patient that was pregnant who was identified with a pancreatic cyst that turned out to be benign. For months after, the patient had a variety of health problems due to the surgery.

Hruban gave an old folk rhyme about coral snakes as an analogy, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, friend of Jack.” Nanotechnology could provide a means of visualizing which cysts are harmful and prevent patients from having unnecessary surgeries.

Story by Gregg Duncan, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with interests in biomaterials and drug delivery.

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