(From left) ASME President Marc Goldsmith; Chad Mirkin, professor and director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University; and Omid Farokhzad, associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
ASME convened leading experts across many disciplines to foster collaboration in the use of nanoscale engineering, medicine and the life sciences to improve healthcare last week at the Society’s 2nd Global Congress on NanoEngineering for Medicine and Biology (NEMB 2013).
More than 350 people attended the three-day conference in Boston, which was held Feb. 4-6. Nearly 100 of the attendees were from overseas. Countries represented included Germany, Denmark, Israel, Britain, the Czech Republic, Iran, Libya and Singapore.
ASME President Marc Goldsmith, who delivered welcoming remarks on the first evening of the conference, said he was pleased that it drew such a broad range of participants. “This conference closely aligns with ASME’s focus on interdisciplinary and global approaches to improving lives and public safety,” Goldsmith said after addressing the group. “We’re gratified that we were able to convene so many eminent researchers, as well as so many graduate students, post docs, and early career scientists and engineers.”
Dr. Kandice Tanner, chief of the Tissue Morphodynamics Unit of the National Institutes of Health's Laboratory of Cell Biology, was similarly impressed with the quality and breadth of the conference program’s content. "This conference 'got it' with high quality, interdisciplinary science,” she said. Tanner added that NEMB 2013 was remarkably successful in bringing together doctors and researchers in molecular engineering, biology and physics, to explore nanomedicine at the molecular, sub-cellular, cellular, tissue and organ level. In fact, she thought that NEMB 2013 compared favorably to the most important annual conference in cell biology. "I will put this on my conference schedule," she said.
The Global Congress’ plenary sessions included presentations by some of the leading scientists, engineers and clinicians in nanotechnology disciplines.
During his plenary, Dr. Chad A. Mirkin of Northwestern University described some of the latest research in spherical nucleic acid nanoparticles, including studies showing how they may help clinicians diagnose metastatic breast cancer much earlier than now possible by detecting tiny traces of marker genes circulating in the blood.
Dr. David J. Mooney, of Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Science, described promising research in the use of polymeric systems to manipulate stem cells inside the body rather than in the laboratory. “Cells of interest live already in the body,” Mooney said. “Why not keep them there?” The approach may lead to clinical success in prompting the development of new blood vessels to bypass blockages in cardiovascular patients. Similar approaches are pointing toward success in cancer therapies, including possible vaccines.
Dr. Donald E. Ingber, of Harvard University and Harvard Medical School, described the nanoscale engineering behind “organs-on-a chip.” These are microchips containing living cells that mimic the blood vessels and tissues of living organs. By using these chips for the early testing of drug efficacy, Ingber pointed to a future of much quicker and cheaper drug development.
A leading expert in nanotechnology and biomechanics at Brown University, Dr. Huajian Gao described why it is important to understand how elasticity, stiffness, shape and mechanical engineering principles govern the penetration of cell membranes by nanoparticles.
Dr. Sanjiv (Sam) Gambhir, of Stanford School of Medicine, described “precision medicine” based on nanotechnology 10 years in the future. Anatomical imaging of cancer tumors, for example, may be supplemented by imaging of molecular probes, for very early detection of metastatic disease.
A widely-recognized pioneer in both tissue engineering and controlled drug delivery using synthetic polymers, Dr. Robert S. Langer of MIT a outlined his career after turning down an opportunity to work as a chemical engineer in the oil industry. He described frequent efforts that flew against conventional wisdom at the time, especially the belief that it was not possible to deliver large molecules — such as angiogenesis inhibitors — into the body.
Exemplifying the interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology research, Dr. Albert-László Barabási, of Northeastern University, explained how physics, computer science, and biology help describe scale-free networks underpinning genetic diseases.
In addition to the plenary lectures, the conference featured over 250 podium talks, posters, workshops and a student competition for best podium talk and best poster.
The conference also took on issues at the intersection of nanotechnology and public health. A lunchtime panel focusing on research and technology transfer funding featured Dr. Jerry S. H. Lee, health sciences director for the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Pep Pàmies, senior editor at Nature Materials,
Dr. Belinda Seto, deputy director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Sally Tinkle of the Nano Science and Technology Institute, and Vince Caprio of the NanoBusiness Alliance.
The co-chairs of the conference were Dr. Markus J. Buehler, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and Dr. Mehmet Toner, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and professor of biomedical engineering at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Dr. Guy Genin, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Washington University in St. Louis, and associate professor of neurological surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine, was program chair. Technical co-chairs were Dr. John Bischof, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota and past chair of the ASME Bioengineering Division, and Dr. Paolo Decuzzi of the Methodist Hospital Research Institute.
— Roger Torda, Public Information