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Stephen Ekker in his  lab.

Stephen Ekker is leading the U's effort to apply nanotechnology to health care.

It's a small world

Nanotechnology makes less more than ever

By Mary Hoff

December 28, 2005

Stephen Ekker has seen the future, and it is small. Smaller than your cells--even smaller than some of the structures within your cells.

An associate professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development, Ekker is leading a University-wide effort to use nanotechnology to prevent, treat, and cure disease.

One of the fastest growing fields in science today, nanotechnology is the design and development of minute devices--devices with dimensions on the order of one ten-thousandth of a millimeter--to address human needs.

Applications range from improving computer chips and solar energy use to building better golf clubs. Although nanotechnology has been part of the world of physics for some time, only recently has it begun to build momentum in the biological sciences.

Last year Ekker, who has a background in both engineering and biology, established a working group that brings together dozens of researchers in an array of departments--from the College of Biological Sciences, Institute of Technology, College of Pharmacy, Medical School, and Cancer Center--to collaboratively apply their expertise to solving biological problems using nanotechnology.

"Nationally, the field of nano-biotechnology is exploding," Ekker says. "I only hope we can keep up with the ever-expanding wave of scientific possibilities."

Drawing on the expertise of the working group, Ekker has organized a Minnesota Cancer Nanotherapy Center. He proposes eight projects to bring a variety of nanotechnologies-seven of which were developed at the University of Minnesota-to bear on cancer diagnosis and treatment. Proposed projects include developing magnetic nanoparticles to treat lung and breast cancer; creating anti-tumor antibody nanorings; developing nanoengineered silicon-based scaffolds for new cancer vaccines; using silicon nanoparticles for cancer imaging and treatment; using nanoparticles to modify genes for cancer therapy; using nano-sized electrospray to treat lung cancer; and evaluating the safety and toxicology of the base nanomaterials that underlie each core project.

Ekker says the University of Minnesota is just the place for conducting such research. Close to 50 IT faculty are already involved in nanotechnology research. The Cancer Center, College of Pharmacy, and Medical School provide a wealth of expertise in linking basic science with clinical application. And the clustering of Academic Health Center, biological sciences, and engineering facilities along Washington Avenue creates unparalleled opportunity for interaction. "This kind of interdisciplinary science is our future," he says. "The University of Minnesota is one of few places in the world that can do it at one major location."

Although there are some institutional barriers yet to overcome, Ekker thinks it's well worth the effort. "If we really put the right people together, an interdisciplinary approach should be able to solve problems that have been very difficult to tackle in the past," he says.