NEI spearheads nanomedicine initiative

August 15, 2005

Fort Lauderdale, FL—Nanomedicine—the application of technology that uses minute devices to treat disease—is a primary component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) "Roadmap for New Pathways to Discovery" that was introduced in 2002 by Elias Zerhouni, MD, director of the NIH.

Paul Sieving, MD, PhD, director of the National Eye Institute (NEI), Bethesda, MD, provided an overview and described the concepts for the future of the nanomedicine initiative at the recent annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. The initiative is being administered through the NEI.

To underscore the importance of nanomedicine, the NIH is investing $80 million in this new pathway over the next 5 years, Dr. Sieving said.

A concern associated with a formidable multidisciplinary approach such as this is that all the participants have a common language.

"Because this approach involves biologists, chemists, material scientists, medical clinicians, engineers, and mathematicians doing modeling, there has to be a common language," Dr. Sieving said. "The concept of a shared lexicon is important and is the difference between transliteration and translation, with the former meaning that the biologist and the engineer use the same words, whereas, the latter is that they mutually understand the concepts behind the terms."

The first undertaking is to have the various professionals meet to develop a language for biological and engineering systems and ideas that can be shared and developed among the participants in the project, he explained. The design principles of biology and cells in terms of engineering concepts must then be elucidated.

"The ultimate goal is to apply those ideas back into living systems to benefit human health," Dr. Sieving said.

Six multidisciplinary centers

Six multidisciplinary nanomedicine centers will be funded. The centers will run for 5 years, with the possibility that the centers will compete again for the awards, for a total 10-year project period.

"These centers will involve whatever it takes to understand the biological system and the ways in which it can be manipulated," Dr. Sieving said. He explained that since biological systems work on a nanometer scale, the connection is to nano- technology.

"These approaches would be broad and not necessarily comprehensive," he said. "The tools that are developed will have to be applicable to other biological systems in addition."

A primary concern is to achieve biocompatibility among tissues and devices to avoid toxicity, he said.

In 2004, the call for applications to the nanomedicine initiative resulted in responses from 83 groups, and 20 Nanomedicine Concept Development Awards were made. These 20 groups will be in competition for selection of the first three nanomedicine centers that will be awarded in September 2005, receiving $6 million, Dr. Sieving reported.

The awards process will be repeated in 2006 to select an additional three centers for funding.

Among the ideas that were proposed by the 20 initial groups were projects focusing on biomembranes; RNA synthesis; DNA repair; protein folding; nanomedicine and supermolecular cellular compartments; biocompatibility, toxicity, and toxicology; and immunomodulation.

A supermolecular cellular compartments project concerns the retinal photoreceptors, outer segments, and the connecting cilia. News of the awards is available on the Web at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/nanomedicine/.

Among the proposals was one that directly involves cells of the visual system.

"The cilia have special biological properties and are very important in multiple organ systems (i.e., the photoreceptors, the heart, and the kidneys)," Dr. Sieving said. "The concept is to understand how molecules organize compartments and assemble and disassemble the compartments based on the needs of the cells."