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 commercialisation - 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.