New Lab for Nano-Bio Breakthroughs

brinkerGroundbreaking research and new facility boost UNM Nano-Bio research

In 1990, C. Jeffrey Brinker wrote a seminal book on solgel processing, a means of making inorganic materials molecule-by-molecule in a beaker, much like organic polymers. Today, sol-gel processing methods are used in everything from makeup to tires, and Brinker is internationally known for his work in advanced materials.

Now a Distinguished and Regent's Professor of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and one of only two Fellows at Sandia National Laboratories, Jeff Brinker continues to explore new frontiers in nanoscience and bioengineering research. Soon he and other UNM researchers will take another leap forward by establishing a new nano-bio incubation space and lab on UNM’s campus, and new worlds of technological innovations could result.

Biologically Inspired

Currently Brinker is applying his expertise in nanostructured materials to research projects inspired by biology in several labs on and off campus. "I'm interested in building biotic-abiotic materials, where we incorporate biological components into inorganic materials," says Brinker. The most dramatic demonstration of that is how he incorporates a living cell into a non-living environment in order to preserve the cell’s viability in extreme conditions-like hot, arid locations-for months or even years.

Brinker began this research six years ago as a means to create a self-contained, self-sustaining cell-based sensor that could operate covertly riding on the back of an insect. "We discovered that living cells could direct the formation of unique nanostructures that prevented drying and stress development," explains Brinker. Now Brinker and a team of researchers are turning this around to understand how the cell-built nanostructure can influence cellular behavior.

Brinker and his team were the first to chemically and physically isolate a living cell in an inorganic microenvironment. To achieve that goal, they developed a method to incorporate individual cells along with lipids (the fatty molecules making up cell membranes) within nanostructured glass beads made by a variation of sol-gel processing. The microenvironment is naturally hydrophilic, which helps to keep the cell alive. "If you make a structure with small, extremely uniform pores, water will actually condense into those pores even at very low humidity," explains Brinker. Now the team is using the materials and technology to find new and better ways to study cells.

Innovation in Isolation

In the process of developing these microenvironments, Brinker and his team discovered that isolating cells in a sol-gel matrix changes the way cells interact with their environment. Cells are natural sensors, sensing hormone-like molecules emitted by themselves and other cells, and changing their genetic programming to adapt to their environment. Brinker's matrix gives researchers a way to keep cells alive in an isolated environment and to see what happens when they can’t interact with other cells. "No one had looked at what happens when you take one of these cells, put it in a small enough environment, and see if these hormone-like molecules accumulate," explains Brinker. "We've proven that the cells can turn on this genetic programming even when they're isolated." That finding has important medical implications, especially in the study of cancer cells, which can be isolated from the main tumor and remain dormant for a long time, only to transform into a metastatic cancer later on.

Brinker and his team are using these microenvironments to study disease dormancy and drug resistance in humans and to develop more effective drug targeting strategies. Currently, many cancer drugs work in the two-dimensional environment of a Petri dish, but when the drugs are injected into a three-dimensional arena like the human body, they don't work. Brinker's microenvironments give researchers a way to study a drug's effect on an isolated in vitro cell, in essence a way to study cell dormancy in the body. Brinker will be publishing his interesting findings later this year.

A Promising Prototype

In another research project, Brinker and a team of engineering graduate students and School of Medicine researchers are developing a drug delivery agent using a new material called a "protocell." This cell replica has a porous silica core that can be loaded with a therapeutic drug and surrounded by a lipid bilayer. On the lipid bilayer, Brinker 'floats' various peptides, short chains of amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins. The fluid lipid allows the peptides to move around and gather at the point of interaction with another cell, which creates a binding effect through multivalency, the simultaneous interaction between two or more entities that governs biological interactions between them. Multivalency can effect selective targeting to a diseased cell, but it can also induce an immune response that clears beneficial drugs out of the body. Brinker’s drug delivery protocell might overcome that problem. "Because the peptides are in a fluid surface and can move around, just a few are required to effect targeted delivery. The remainder of the surface contains lipids and other components that help to make it more immune resistant."

Brinker also has informal research collaborations with a variety of engineers, scientists, and graduate students from other departments and organizations. "All of this research has emerged out of thin air. We have a fragile network of researchers right now," says Brinker. "When we have a space where we can bring people together in a physical setting, we can create a lot more in the way of intellectual content and technology."

A New Space to Collaborate

Brinker's plans for a new nano-bio incubation space and lab in the Centennial Engineering Center will help researchers realize the goals of advancing technological innovations and improving New Mexico's economic development. In March, UNM received $2 million from the state legislature to build and equip the new facility.

The incubation space is anticipated to attract funding from investors to help researchers solve the conundrum of how to pursue new research directions when funding agents often require substantial amounts of preliminary data. This could also help projects move through the challenging process of technology transfer, where research is beyond federal funding but not quite ready for private sector investment. Brinker is working on augmenting funds from the state with grant money and private contributions. He also hopes to enhance the lab by moving facilities currently at Sandia National Laboratories to the new space.

Brinker says that technologic developments from the incubation space could increase the number of technological innovations and the number of nano-bio startups. "If we can bring all these capabilities together, it would be very impressive. Then we can imagine companies springing up around these ideas and that would be a great thing for New Mexico."