Led by Jeffrey Smith, Ph.D., of the Burnham Institute and the principal investigator of the program, the scientific team is comprised of biochemists, vascular biologists, chemical engineers and physicists. "This is a novel approach to bring experts from all these fields together," said Dr. Smith. "And it's very exciting. These groups do not normally work together. But in this instance, I think it's going to produce some real scientific progress."
Recent studies have shown that plaque exists in two modes: non-vulnerable and vulnerable. Blood passing through an artery exerts a shearing force and can cause vulnerable plaque to rupture, which often leads to occlusion and myocardial infarction. This is a significant health issue: of the nearly one million people who die each year from cardiac disease, 60% perish without showing any symptoms. As many as 60 - 80% of sudden cardiac deaths can be attributed to the physical rupture of vulnerable plaque.
"We intend to exploit this new understanding of atherosclerotic plaque," said Dr. Smith. "By focusing on devising nano-devices, which can be described as machines at the molecular level, we will specifically target vulnerable plaque. That cannot be accomplished today. My colleagues and I hope that our work will lead to real diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for those suffering from this form of cardiac disease."
The project team will work on three innovative solutions to combat vulnerable plaque; 1) building delivery vehicles that can be used to transport drugs and nanodevices to sites of vulnerable plaque; 2) designing a series of self-assembling polymers that can be used as molecular nano-stents to physically stabilize vulnerable plaque, 3) creating nano-machines comprised of human proteins linked to synthetic nano-devices for the purpose of sensing and responding to vulnerable plaque.
"The Programs of Excellence in Nanotechnology is a vitally important research effort that will spur the development of novel technologies to diagnose and treat heart, lung, and blood diseases," said Elizabeth G. Nabel, M.D., director of the National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH. "The program brings together bioengineers, materials scientists, biologists, and physicians who will work in interdisciplinary teams. By taking advantage of the unique properties of materials at the nanoscale, these teams will devise creative solutions to medical problems."
PEN Director, Jeffrey Smith, Ph.D., Professor, The Burnham Institute, will oversee the Program's administrative and training components, as well as his own research component. Dr. Smith also directs the Center on Proteolytic Pathways at The Burnham Institute, recently established as one of first centers funded by the National Institute of Health's Roadmap Initiative. Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., Distinguished Scientist and former President/CEO of The Burnham Institute, using in vivo phage display technology discovered in his laboratory, will identify and develop targeting elements needed to target the delivery of nanodevices to vulnerable plaque. Dr. Ruoslahti is credited with the first successful targeted delivery of a nanomachine into live tissue, using similar strategies. Also from The Burnham Institute are William B. Stallcup, Ph.D., Professor, who will supervise the and Francesca Marassi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, who will provide NMR expertise for structural studies.
Zaverio M. Ruggeri, M.D., Professor, and a world-renowned expert in vascular pathology, is collaborating from The Scripps Research Institute. The team from UC Santa Barbara will contribute unique expertise in molecular engineering and nano-fabrication. They include Matthew V. Tirrell, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Engineering and professor of chemical engineering; Andrew Cleland, Ph.D., associate professor of physics; Patrick Daugherty, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical engineering; Samir Mitragotri, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemical engineering; and Joseph Zasadzinski, Ph.D., professor of chemical engineering.
In concert with the NIH's strategy to accelerate progress in medical research through innovative technology and interdisciplinary research, cardiac disease was chosen as the focus of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute's recently established Program of Excellence in Nanotechnology.
The Burnham Institute, founded in 1976, is an independent not-for-profit biomedical research institution dedicated to advancing the frontiers of scientific knowledge and providing the foundation for tomorrow's medical therapies. The Institute is home to three major centers: the original Cancer Center, the Del E. Webb Neuroscience and Aging Center established in 1999, and the Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Center dedicated in 2004. Since 1981, the Institute's Cancer Center has earned the prestigious designation as a Non-comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute. Discoveries by Burnham scientists have contributed to the development of new drugs for Alzheimer's disease, heart disease and several forms of cancer. Today the Burnham Institute employs over 700, including more than 550 scientists. The majority of the Institute's funding derives from federal sources, but private philanthropic support is essential to continuing bold and innovative research. For additional information about the Institute and ways to support the research efforts of the Institute, visit www.burnham.org.