Late last year, we relayed the announcement of an exciting new academic program here at the University of Chicago, the Institute of Molecular Engineering. At the time, the IME had a future home (sharing the new William Eckhardt Research Center with the Physical Sciences Division) and a vision, but did not yet have a leader. Yesterday, that crucial headpiece was officially put in place, as biomolecular engineering and nanotechnology expert Matthew Tirrell was named the first Pritzker Director of the IME.
Tirrell will come to UChicago from California, where he has spent time at the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Santa Barbara over the last 12 years. His research specialty is the surface properties of polymers, chains of molecules that can be manipulated for building better materials used for everything from energy to technology to medicine. Those versatile aspirations make Tirrell the perfect leader for the IME, where the mission is to bridge disciplines at UChicago and Argonne National Laboratory and bring the tools of biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics to bear on finding solutions to some of science’s most important challenges.
“This isn’t going to be directed narrowly toward one scientific discipline, but at creating an institute that attacks societal problems from a technological viewpoint,” he said in the official announcement. “Many important societal problems in energy or health care or the environment can be addressed by new molecular-level science. When you are trying to solve problems, you need people from different kinds of disciplines. That’s something the Institute for Molecular Engineering can create right from the beginning.”
In his nearly 300 scientific publications, Tirrell has often studied and discussed how the surface properties of polymers are important for the success of biomaterials. Materials “communicate” with their surroundings through their surfaces, and designing new synthetic devices for technological uses requires a firm grasp on this process. As a result, bioengineers have taken inspiration from how natural materials such as mollusk shells and animal tissue solve surface compatibility problems to understand these interactions on a molecular level.
One application of that accumulated knowledge about biomaterials is novel solutions to clinical problems. In a phone interview Monday with ScienceLife about the biomedical goals of the IME, Tirrell talked about how these new technologies will not be merely passive construction materials, but active biological compounds.
“There are going to be ways of using biology not only to make things but also to do things,” Tirrell said. “Therapeutic organisms can be engineered with the tools of modern biology: living devices, if you will, as well as man-made devices.”
One example from Tirrell’s own research career expands upon designing living machines as a sort of multi-functional Swiss Army knife for diagnosing and treating diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. A 2009 paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a self-assembling lipid sphere called a micelle (pictured at right) to target the fatty plaques that form in blood vessels during atherosclerosis. When those plaques rupture, dangerous clots can form and block blood vessels. To treat those clots, physicians currently prescribe blood thinning drugs that can produce unwelcome side effects, because the drug is not specifically targeted to the clot and acts throughout the body.
In the study, custom-made micelles only 17 nanometers in diameter (or .0000017 centimeters) were designed by Tirrell and collaborators to target a specific factor secreted by these plaque-related clots. The researchers could then attach a fluorescent molecule to this micelle to be used for imaging the clots, and/or an anti-coagulant drug that can directly work to break up the offending clot without affecting healthy parts of the body. The nanomolecules were a success in mouse trials, binding selectively to the rupture-sensitive “shoulder” of the plaque and delivering an anti-clotting drug to the area, suggesting a promising targeted therapeutic strategy.
“The charm of self-organization is it’s a very easy mechanistic route to putting multiple functionalities in the same assembly. We envision that micelles such as these could have targeting elements that enable you to find pathological tissue, diagnostic elements that allow you to report that on that tissue, and therapeutic potential,” Tirrell said. “What you get out of that is something more than the sum of its parts.”
The same phrase – more than the sum of its parts – could equally apply to the Institute for Molecular Engineering. When Tirrell officially starts the position in July, he looks forward to building a team that can work across traditional scientific boundaries to translate basic scientific discovery into broad benefits to the world at large.
“I think in the IME we’re going to want to attract faculty who are capable of operating right at the forefronts of science, Tirrell said. “But their inclination of what they do with that knowledge is aimed at invention, and is motivated by tackling big problems of societal impact.”
[Visit the UChicago News Office for more on Tirrell’s appointment and the IME, including video interviews with Tirrell, chemist Steven Sibener, molecular biophysicist Erin Adams, and more. Tirrell photo by Lloyd DeGrane]