Medicine at the Nanoscale


A tumor-penetrating peptide allows co-injected drugs to penetrate into tumor tissue. (Image created by Peter Allen, UCSB)

UC Santa Barbara and La Jolla-based Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute have teamed up to create a new center on the UCSB campus that will focus on medical research at the nanoscale.

Delivering cancer-fighting drugs directly into tumors, understanding how disease cells differ from normal cells at the molecular level (resulting in disease signatures called biomarkers), and developing multimodal approaches to diagnosis, imaging and therapeutics are the goals of the new UC Santa Barbara – Sanford-Burnham Institute Center for Nanomedicine.

The center will continue the development of innovative cancer treatments begun by Sanford-Burnham Distinguished Professor and UCSB Adjunct Distinguished Professor Erkki Ruoslahti. Ruoslahti joined the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology in 2006 while maintaining his affiliation with Sanford-Burnham, where he began his pioneering research into a cell-based, tumor drug-delivery system.

“Because of my knowledge of homing peptides, engineers began approaching me about using this technology to help target nanoparticles,” Ruoslahti explains. “I realized that molecular biology and chemistry have made great contributions to medicine, but we needed to do more. It was time to also focus on physics and materials science.” Ruoslahti’s work has led to unprecedented breakthroughs in cancer treatments.

Based on Ruoslahti’s successful partnership, Sanford-Burnham and UCSB decided to broaden the efforts with the establishment of the Center for Nanomedicine in 2009.

“At UCSB, world class expertise exists in many areas including bioengineering, materials science, and physics. Sanford-Burnham likewise is a top-tier biomedical research institute recently ranked No. 1 in scientific impact in its field during the past decade. Both institutes are highly collaborative and envision the synergy and value in forming this partnership,” says Jamey Marth, the new center’s director. “The center could become a nexus for the medical convergence of engineering and biology at the nanoscale.”

Nanomedicine is an offshoot of nanotechnology – it has been defined as a comprehensive system of monitoring, maintenance, and repair of biological systems, working from the molecular level using engineered devices and nanostructures for medical benefit. “It is the merging of fields such as these that typically offers the greatest opportunities to solve elusive and important problems,” Marth explains.

“This is already evident from the recent discoveries of Erkki Ruoslahti. His laboratory has pioneered the field of nanomedicine, having developed some of the most sophisticated tools and approaches to target cancer and cardiovascular disease. The ability to deliver molecules including drugs, siRNAs, protein therapeutics, and imaging agents to the correct place is fundamental to nanomedicine. Such discoveries at the Center for Nanomedicine are already changing the way we think about preventing, treating, and curing disease,” Marth says.

“The first five years of the center will be focused on moving the most translational discoveries and technologies into the clinic while getting the message out, developing our base of operations, recruiting additional top-tier scientists, and strengthening our integrated research platform.”

Marth’s own research reflects the focus of the center. Using genetic and biologic technologies, some of which were first invented by his laboratory, he has discovered diagnostic markers and mechanisms of Type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, and the lethal complications of infectious disease.

“Interestingly, in some of these diseases, genes don’t tell us the full story,” Marth says. “We have found that other factors exist in causing disease, including factors that are normally present within our own cells. (Read news of Marth’s recent work). Currently, no diagnostics exist for these more mysterious molecules. So there’s no good way to observe them or to manipulate them. They’re not visible through the genome because they are not a part of the template-dependent biology that researchers have focused on over the past 50 years. This reflects a new realization that not everything within our cells is directly encoded by genes. These other factors are part of ‘template-independent biology’ and have been essentially invisible to us. We must look to nanoscale engineering to also develop the tools we need to detect and manipulate these components of health and disease. This will require bioengineers, physicists, and materials scientists working closely together with biomedical researchers in highly collaborative settings.”

Five major classes of disease are being studied at the center: autoimmune disease; cancer; cardiovascular disease; infectious disease; and diabetes.

“We will look to develop partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry and health care providers, and contribute to enriching the community with additional high tech jobs as well as start-up companies,” Marth says. “The Center for Nanomedicine is already positioned at the leading edge of what is becoming an era of transformation in biology and medicine. We can leverage the support of local and national constituents to ensure that we retain this early lead and move forward optimally in building a new biotech infrastructure here in Santa Barbara.”