State poised as center for nanomedicine

Proposed Rockville center, new Frederick lab are signs of growing field of research

Friday, Sept. 15, 2006

A new lab in Frederick and a proposed research center in Rockville are at the forefront of the emerging field of nanomedicine.

A leading researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has recommended establishing an international nanomedicine center at the university’s Rockville campus, said Elaine Amir, campus director.

Chiming Wei, president of the American Academy of Nanomedicine, is proposing the campus because it is in the heart of the county’s technology corridor.

‘‘We think we are an excellent location near 18 federal research labs and all the connections with them,” Amir said.

Among those labs are those at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, which are conducting extensive nanotechnology research.

On Monday, following the second annual meeting of the American Academy of Nanomedicine at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., Wei and Amir led a delegation of 15 to 20 leading researchers from the conference on a tour of the Johns Hopkins facilities on Medical Center Drive.

The new center would bring together engineers and the medical community to develop nanomedicine.

‘‘We reviewed our plans and explained that our campus is a model of integration of business, academics and research, all in one,” Amir said.

Gary Brooker, director of the university’s Integrated Image Center, demonstrated its state-of-the-science electron microscope services that are offered to companies that cannot afford such a $1 million-plus setup, Amir said.

Nanotech at Fort Detrick

Meanwhile, researchers at the nanotechnology laboratory at Fort Detrick in Frederick, established last year, will be discovering the potential — and possible pitfalls — of the science’s applications in developing drugs to treat cancer and other diseases.

The National Cancer Institute’s Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory, under a three-agency pact published last month, will help develop standards for advancing the new class of molecular-sized or cancer drugs through clinical trials.

On Sunday at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, Anil Patri, the lab’s senior scientist, outlined a memorandum of understanding involving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg and the cancer institute.

The Frederick lab’s mission is linked to a concern that nanodrugs are a new kind of challenge for the FDA, one that may require new guidelines and data for proper review and ultimate approval for human consumption.

The lab, established last year, is one of many emerging laboratories applying engineering principles to drug development. The facility tests anew nanoparticles from universities and private companies as potential cancer drugs.

The lab’s business plan includes partnering with Scientific Applications International Corp. of San Diego, which has about 1,500 employees in its Frederick division.

The field has emerged in the past two decades as a convergence of three maturing technologies — micro-robotics, semi-conductors and powerful microscopes — that has allowed scientists to manipulate matter into new kinds of tiny particles. The resulting nanoparticles are measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick.

Their minuscule size, however, also raises concerns, as nanoparticles can easily infiltrate the lungs and bloodstream, according to the American Chemical Society, prompting the need for new safety standards to protect the health of both industry workers and consumers.

Global investment in nanotechnology reached $9.6 billion in 2005.

Forbes magazine’s list of new commercial nanotech products for 2005 included a fat-busting canola cooking oil, chocolate chewing gum from elasticized cocoa, nanofacial cream for antioxidant results, a baseball bat made with powerful nanofibers, casual apparel with tiny whiskers to repel liquids and stink-proof polyester socks.

But nanomedicines have been slower to develop, Patri said. However, several nanomedicine companies have emerged in Maryland recently, including three in Rockville: Rexahn Pharmaceuticals Inc., Intradigm Corp. and CytImmune Sciences Inc.