UM Researchers Present Innovative Biomedical Strategies at NanoDay 2019

Soft, watery hydrogels to carry therapeutics for bone infections, bioengineered stem cell tissues, and microcapsules to protect transplanted islet cells in patients with type 1 diabetes were among the innovative biomedical strategies presented at NanoDay 2019.

From left, Dean Henri Ford, Provost Jeffrey Duerk, Dr. Sylvia Daunert, and Dr. Andrés García.
From left, Dean Henri Ford, Provost Jeffrey Duerk, Dr. Sylvia Daunert, and Dr. Andrés García.

Researchers from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences outlined their interdisciplinary work in the field of nanotechnology at the September 20 conference organized by BioNIUM, the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute at the University of Miami.

With its emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and a focus on interdisciplinary inquiry, NanoDay is aligned with the university’s roadmap for the next century, said Jeffrey Duerk, Ph.D., executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “To make the discoveries that lead to solutions to important problems, we need tools, collaborations and shared resources,” he said. “NanoDay is a great example of our university’s commitment to the interdisciplinary approach.”

Sylvia Daunert, Pharm.D., M.S., Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, director of BioNIUM and the Lucille P. Markey Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, welcomed student, faculty and professional attendees.

“Our mission at BioNIUM is ‘Nano for all,’ because nanotechnologies touch everyone,” she said. “Along with interdisciplinary research, we are also educating the next generation of scientists, engineers and clinicians, as well as our community.”

Since the National Nanotechnology Initiative came into effect in 2003, more than $27 billion in federal funds has been invested in the field, said Dr. Daunert. In 2017, BioNIUM’s work was recognized as a “bridging technology” in the university’s research plan, bringing clinicians and researchers together to develop technologies that matter, she added.

Ashutosh Agarwal, Ph.D., assistant professor of engineering, biochemistry and molecular biology, and associate director of BioNIUM, noted that UM has a modern nanofabrication facility at Converge Miami’s laboratories.  To date, more than 500 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters, as well as 35 patents and patent applications, have resulted from BioNIUM research, he said.

Hydrogels for regenerative medicine

Andrés García, Ph.D., executive director of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Institute of Technology, gave the keynote talk on “Bioengineered Synthetic Hydrogels for Regenerative Medicine.”

Hydrogels are soft, wet materials, similar to gelatin, that are primarily water with a polymer “backbone.” They can be engineered with a well-defined structure to carry biological signals in a controlled fashion, and deliver proteins, stem cells and other forms of therapy.

One promising approach is using a bioengineered hydrogel platform to support transplanted islet cells in patients with type 1 diabetes without chronic immunosuppression. “This has worked well in diabetic mice and monkeys, and may have implications for other types of transplantation,” Dr. Garcia said.

He also outlined his work in treating bone infections by delivering lysostaphin, a potent but unstable microbial therapy against staphylococcus, using a synthetic biomaterial platform.

A third area of Dr. García’s research involves pluripotent stem cell-derived human organoids – three-dimensional human tissues generated in a laboratory.  One example would be taking skin cells from patients with Alzheimer’s disease, reprogramming them to be stem cells and then culturing them to become brain cells with similar characteristics of the patient. “This would be a very efficient way to screen drugs for Alzheimer’s disease as well as other conditions,” he said.

The challenge with current therapeutic approaches is the organoids have to be embedded in a commercial gelatin-like substance called Matrigel, which has varying amounts of proteins, growth factors and other substances. “Many research groups are working on a fully synthetic material to promote the organoids,” Dr. Garcia said. “Hydrogel is a promising approach to the delivery of organoids.”

New therapeutic approaches

Shanta Dhar, Ph.D., a member of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, outlined her work on “NanoTherapeutics for Major Diseases.”  She is studying nanoparticle-assisted targeted delivery of therapeutics in cancer, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.  For instance, Dr. Dhar is looking at using an engineered nanoparticle platform to modify a tumor’s micro environment by increasing cellular energy levels and immune-boosting proteins.

Dr. Dhar is also looking at nanotechnology strategies to break the brain-blood barrier and allow therapeutics to enter the brain. “It is difficult to target neurons with nanoparticles,” she said. “So we are trying to build a delivery platform that will support the brain’s astrocytes, making them better able to protect neurons in good health.”

Alice Tomei, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Diabetes Research Institute, spoke on a “Bioengineered Platform for Immunomodulation in Autoimmune Diabetes.”  She discussed using hydrogels in a biological scaffold to prevent the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.  If an islet transplantation is necessary, biomaterials at the nano scale could be used to encapsulate individual islets of different sizes, making them “invisible” to T-cells in the immune system, she added.

Other NanoDay speakers included Abhishek Prasad, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Jean-Hubert Olivier, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, who discussed their team science work on “New Insights into the Functionalization of Neural Interfaces with Drug-Loaded Hydrogels.”

Khizroev Sakhrat, professor of  electrical and computer engineering, and biochemistry and molecular biology, discussed his work on a “Contactless Brain-Machine Interface,” using magnetoelectric nanotranducers to record information from neurons in a mouse brain.

The NanoDay conference included a poster session showcasing the work of University of Miami undergraduate, graduate and medical students, as well as that of postdoctoral fellows.

Tags: BioNIUM, Dr. Sylvia Daunert, NanoDay, Provost Jeffrey Duerk, stem cells