WMU News

Keck grant will fund nanotechnology focus on cell biology

Jan. 17, 2004

KALAMAZOO--California's W.M. Keck Foundation has awarded $500,000 to a $1 million research project at Western Michigan University aimed at unlocking the secrets of the mechanism that allows the penetration of cells by everything from harmful agents like viruses and pollutants to beneficial new drug discoveries.

The Keck Foundation has notified the University that one of its prestigious medical research awards will go to WMU's Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center for a two-year basic research effort that is expected to make a fundamental contribution to a wide range of scientific disciplines. The research team will be led by Dr. Subra Muralidharan, associate professor of chemistry and director of the center.

"We are delighted to have the opportunity to partner with the W.M. Keck Foundation to carry out research that so closely fits both WMU's mission and the goals of the Foundation's grant program," said WMU President Judith I. Bailey of the news. "Not only will this research provide critical information for the medical and health sciences--with obvious implications for our work in biosciences commercialization--it also will be carried out in a way that is really emblematic of our focus on student-centered research. Both undergraduate and graduate students will be essential to completing this research, and they will work closely with some of our most talented faculty researchers."

The University will match the $500,000 from the Keck Foundation with a similar amount, from the President's Unrestricted Fund, bringing the total funding for the research initiative to $1 million. That WMU fund consists of money from private donors for use by the president to advance the goals of the institution.

WMU's research team, which will include four students, will delve into the mechanisms that allow the transport of materials across a cell membrane. Such transport is poorly understood but critical for carefully targeting drug delivery as well as understanding how viruses, pollutants and toxins disrupt cell functions, says Muralidharan. Such transport involves the creation of a temporary hole in the membrane followed by the rapid closing of the hole through the action of line tension, which he calls the one-dimensional equivalent of surface tension.

"We've proposed some novel experimental approaches to directly measure line tension," Muralidharan says. "Laser tweezers and scanning electrochemical microscopy will be used to measure line tension in a number of both natural and synthetic substances."

Understanding line tension, he notes, will have an enormous impact on biology and nantotechnology, and the knowledge will be critical to the development of targeted drug delivery systems. Such novel, nanoscale drug delivery systems are a major focus of WMU's new Biosciences Research and Commercialization Center, established late in 2003 with a $10 million award from the state of Michigan. WMU's Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center is a cornerstone of the new commercialization initiative, and the line tension research is expected to lead to collaborative research projects with major pharmaceutical companies.

Working with Muralidharan will be Dr. Yirong Mo and Dr. Dongil Lee of WMU's Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Brian Tripp and Dr. Karim Essani of the Department of Biological Sciences.

The research team will use the funding to purchase and build research instruments. These will be placed in the newly designated W.M. Keck Nanotechnology Laboratory in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The Keck award also will support two undergraduate students, two graduate students and a postdoctoral research associate. The students will be designated W.M. Keck Scholars. The research associate will be known as the W.M. Keck Research Fellow and will be responsible for building a laser tweezer apparatus, setting up the Keck Laboratory and acting as a mentor to the students who are named Keck Scholars.

The W.M. Keck Foundation is one of the nation's largest philanthropic organizations. Established in 1954 by the late William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company, the Foundation's grant making is focused primarily on the areas of medical research, science, and engineering. The Foundation also maintains a program for liberal arts colleges and a Southern California Grant Program that provides support in the areas of civic and community services, with a special emphasis on children.

WMU's Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center was established in 2002. Its focus is nanobioenvironmental chemistry. Researchers with the center have gained the support of such funding organizations as Pfizer Corp., the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor, Argonne National Laboratory, the Xerox Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. The center also has collaborative relationships with Xerox Corp. and Nevada-based Altair Nanomaterials.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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