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A "Win-win-win" Situation: Nanotechnology in Regenerative Medicine

bridges vol. 14, July 2007 / Nanotechnology Focus

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Samuel Stupp, director of the Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine at Northwestern University, is at the center of cutting-edge medical research that has the potential to tackle challenges like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, heart attacks, and spinal cord injuries.

In Stupp's opinion, the keys to these yet-unsolved problems are nanotechnology and regenerative medicine. In one of Stupp's experiments, lab mice with severed spinal cords regained partial function in their hind legs. The question is: Can these results eventually be translated to humans?

Professor Stupp - according to Scientific American one of the "50 Leaders Shaping the Future of Technology for 2005," and one of the "15 Scientists That Will Change Your World" (Biotechnology Industrial Organization) - wants to find out. Among his numerous society and board memberships, he is also connected to Austria as a member of the University of Vienna Scientific Advisory Board.

In the following interview with bridges, Stupp provides insight into the stunning prospects of his cutting-edge research, addresses the controversial legal framework of research in regenerative medicine, and comments on the allegations of potential dangers of his research.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Professor Stupp, you are a leading expert in regenerative medicine. What is so interesting about nanotechnology and regenerative medicine?

What is most interesting is that you can emulate the natural environment around cells at the nanoscale, using designed nanostructures you can create artificial structures that can signal cells without being toxic, for example synthesized from biodegradable materials that are harmless. They can be crafted to signal cells to do things that they normally do not do.

By definition, when we speak about regenerative medicine we are referring to things that do not happen spontaneously. So if you, for example, rupture part of the cartilage in your joint or if you injure your spinal cord or the back of your brain, regeneration is not something that happens spontaneously but you have to intervene. Nanotechnology offers a special kind of intervention, because you can design structures from bottom up with very small dimensions that can be engineered to give signals to the cells.

Could you say that, through nanotechnology in regenerative medicine, you allow the human body to move beyond its typical functions?

That is not regenerative medicine. You are referring to capabilities beyond the normal capabilities. Personally, I do not think that is an area that is in the realm of regenerative medicine, and it should not be the main objective of regenerative medicine. In regenerative medicine you want to be able to recover normal function.

If you have an injury to your spinal cord and if you are about to become paralyzed for life, this is not normal. You do not want to become paralyzed: Rather, you want to maintain all your physiological functions, your freedom, your ability to move from one point to another the way humans do. This is not going beyond the capabilities of the normal human being. I think it has to be clear that the objective of the field is to return normal function to bodies that either have been exposed to physical trauma or have the misfortune of genetic defects or an acquired disease during adulthood or during development. This is very important, because sometimes people think that in regenerative medicine you develop super-humans, and that is the wrong concept.

You mentioned that a lot of progress has been achieved. What is the future outlook in regenerative medicine? How far do you think this field can go until it reaches its limits?

I think the outlook is great. We are making a lot of progress in observing regenerative phenomena in animal models, which we did not expect. Not too long ago, in my lecture at the Woodrow Wilson Center, I described the regeneration of axons after spinal cord injuries. I also talked about the possibility of reversing symptoms in Parkinson's disease, or the return of normal heart function after a heart attack. These observations involved the use of artificial but biodegradable non-toxic nanostructures. All those are critically important targets. Methods of cell transplantation are also being improved and this is also important in regenerative medicine.

One of the most exciting frontiers, where there will be a lot of progress in the next decades, is the field where research on stem cell biology and nanotechnology are married - not only to use the powers of nanotechnology in designing bottom-up functional structures, but also to utilize cells to regenerate tissues and organs. That area is in a very early stage of development right now. My laboratory has been using exclusively nanotechnology per se, not cells but just nanotechnology, and also well-known proteins that can be produced for regenerative medicine. But the field where cells come into the picture still needs to be developed and there are indications that breakthroughs will eventually come.

What do you think about the existing legal framework for research in regenerative medicine?

It is very healthy that there is great interest within the context of policy-making. From a research point of view, there is great interest in promoting the interface between physical sciences and life sciences which is important in this complex field. It is also important that federal research funding has promoted this interdisciplinary research, critical to emerging frontiers, including regenerative medicine. Obviously we have some barriers in terms of stem cell research. Those barriers in the United States - and in other countries too - need to be eliminated. Things need to be changed. Right now there are many barriers to stem cell research.

What do you think about the climate in the US compared to that in Europe - is there any difference in the attitude towards regenerative medicine?

I see that the interest is strong on both sides. People understand that regenerative medicine is a fantastic goal for science, because it has a huge impact on quality of life for humans and, at the same time, it drives science to its limits. It pushes science, and many spin-offs can occur that are not regenerative medicine.

At the same time, regenerative medicine can create and build an economy. Imagine the great benefits for the economy, when you can keep more humans functional throughout their life, particularly now that people live longer than ever before. People need to stay functional for a longer time, and keeping people functional takes a lot of government resources. At the same time, regenerative medicine requires new products and this has an economic impact. And the goal - the highest possible quality of life - is something all humans should be interested in. As a scientist, I see that it is a field that has catalyzed learning in the physical sciences, learning in the life sciences, and learning in engineering disciplines. So it is a win-win-win situation.

What about other challenges that can be addressed at the nanoscale?

Regenerative medicine is not the only goal we should be going after. We have many other challenges. Energy is one. The quest for alternative sources of energy is extremely important, as are the environmental problems of the planet. Even in the context of nanotechnology and medicine, there is the area of diagnostics which is very important - to be able to detect diseases early on and to be able to save people more easily. The great thing about the spirit of nanotechnology is that it unifies most of the things I have mentioned. It is really the very first time that scientists are thinking more rationally about designing structures at the nanoscale in order to engineer important functions. Before the nano-era we were always thinking about molecules and materials, but we were not thinking much about design at the nanoscale and integrating it all the way to the macroscopic scale. It is a new way of looking at design of function in materials and devices.

Prof. Stupp, you have talked about the "spirit" of nanotechnology and the new way of looking at and designing things. From your point of view, are there any health risks or environmental risks that might occur through application of nanotechnology?

So far I have not seen anything that looks particularly serious to me. You can never say that there are no risks in something. Anytime you start a new activity in technology, you have to ask those questions. Alongside the development of a new technology, you have to be sure that there are no risks in any respect with that new technology, so it is part of scientific responsibility to do this.

I am afraid that some people are looking too hard for potential dangers. As far as I know, their ideas are not well founded, and some things that have been proposed are nothing but science fiction. Some proposals that have been made about nanostructures taking a life of their own and causing damage to humans - this is science fiction. There is no scientific evidence, no scientific basis, to support those claims.

Nanotechnology is a very broad platform. It covers the composition of matter over the entire range that we know. We know that not everything is toxic, we live in a world that is not predominantly toxic. So I think it is really unreasonable to emphasize these concerns, and I think the positive needs to be emphasized much more.


This interview was conducted on May 25, 2007, by Milan Polak.


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