Blind World

NIH awards $3.1 million to Delaware researchers.

February 20, 2004.

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Researchers in the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering have been awarded $3.1 million in two grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the development of an instrumental protocol for the detection of early stage cataracts and for the engineering of novel drug delivery systems.

One of the multidisciplinary research efforts will combine the expertise of Kristi L. Kiick, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and Eric M. Furst, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and will focus on the assembly of hydrogel materials via specific, biologically important ligand-receptor interactions.

Kiick will apply a combination of chemical and biological synthesis to design and produce various ligand-receptor pairs that will control gel assembly and materials properties, and Furst will develop optical methods to quantitatively characterize the physical properties of these materials on length scales that are relevant to cellular processes.

The combination of these researchers’ expertise will permit the rational design of new materials that have controlled physical properties, drug delivery profiles and degradation rates in the body. Applications in tissue remodeling, wound treatment and chemotherapy will be possible.

The other interdisciplinary effort, which will be led by John F. Rabolt, Karl W. and Renate Böer Professor and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will focus on the use of highly sensitive planar array infrared (PA-IR) for early detection of small proteins in the human lens that are believed to aggregate and crystallize to form larger particles, or cataracts, that cast a shadow on the retina and eventually lead to blindness. The PA-IR technology was developed and patented at UD.

Researchers in the department plan to design and miniaturize the ultra-sensitive, no-moving parts, portable PA-IR instrumentation and demonstrate its effectiveness in characterizing protein architecture and conformation in dilute concentrations.

If successful, these instruments could be deployed in the medical offices of ophthalmologists, allowing them to screen for the beginning of cataract formation five to 10 years before the cataracts could be detected using current instrumentation.

Specific applications of this research into the molecular basis of eye diseases, including glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa—a hereditary disease that causes the rod photoreceptors in the retina to gradually degenerate—and cataracts are envisioned.

In addition, these multidisciplinary groups will integrate research and education so as to provide a new generation of graduate and undergraduate students with the expertise and “work-force ready” skills to compete in the rapidly expanding field of biomolecular materials research.

“Detection and intervention strategies like PA-IR will help usher in a new generation of tools that will improve the quality of life of the general population as it ages and for infants who are born with congenital cataracts,” Rabolt said. “NIH’s new National Institute of Bio-Imaging and Bioengineering has been proactive in investing in research that will bring technology from the bench top to the medical office and their grant to the University is a vote of confidence in the diversity of expertise that exists here to accomplish these goals.”

“The support of our interdisciplinary research efforts by the NIH has been critical for launching our research in this area,” Kiick added. “We are enthusiastic about the opportunities, through our combination of expertise, to design, assemble and characterize unique biomaterials. Our abilities to manipulate and understand materials properties on the nanoscale will enable the invention of new materials that are appropriately responsive to specific cells in the body, and these advances will open up new strategies for targeted drug delivery.”

Article by Neil Thomas.

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