UD wins $10.5 million grant for biomaterials research center
UD's advanced biomaterials research team includes (from left) Xinqiao Jia, Darrin Pochan, Thomas Epps, Kristi Kiick, Sandeep Patel, Zhihao Zhuang and Millicent Sullivan. UD photo by Kathy Atkinson
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2:40 p.m., Oct. 28, 2008----The National Institutes of Health's National Center for Research Resources (NIH-NCRR) has awarded the University of Delaware a five-year, $10.5 million grant for a multidisciplinary research program on molecular design of advanced biomaterials. The program will be directed by Thomas P. Beebe Jr., professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and director of UD's Surface Analysis Facility.

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The grant is part of NIH's Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program, which funds projects to strengthen the research infrastructure and further the research careers of junior science and engineering faculty in this area.

In addition to Beebe, the research team includes Joseph Fox, Sandeep Patel, Tatyana Polenova, Joel Schneider, Zhihao Zhuang and Neal Zondlo, chemistry and biochemistry; Randall Duncan and Cindy Farach-Carson, biological sciences; Millicent Sullivan and Thomas Epps, chemical engineering; and Xinqiao Jia, Kristi L. Kiick and Darrin Pochan, materials science and engineering.

An established researcher in the field of surface chemistry, Beebe has pioneered new classes of nanomaterials and biomaterials with well-controlled surfaces, including materials that are designed to stimulate and guide nerve cells. He said he hopes to eventually invent a cure for paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries.

But Beebe downplays his own role as principal investigator of the grant.

“The real credit for this NIH center award goes to a handful of very smart and collaborative young faculty in the departments of chemistry and biochemistry, materials science and engineering, and chemical engineering. The center's research focus will be shaped by the research programs, and the center's success will be achieved by the excellent productivity of these young faculty members.”

The new research center will be organized around five themes in biomaterials research, with each led by one of the 11 junior faculty members. Some teams also have invited some of UD's most respected and experienced senior faculty, as well as medical doctors and researchers from local hospitals, to serve as their mentors and research collaborators. Four of the projects will focus on developing new materials, while the fifth will develop methods to characterize them.

Biomaterials are not new, as anything that comes into contact with a part of the body for an extended period of time--for example, contact lenses, hip implants and dental fillings--is considered a biomaterial.

“For many years, the biomedical industry has focused on making anything that goes into the body as strong, unreactive and inert as possible,” Beebe says. Commonly used materials have included titanium, ceramics and stainless steel. In contrast, the new program will focus on “smart biomaterials.”

“Rather than trying to fool the body into thinking that there is no object present,” Beebe explains, “our researchers will use their understanding of chemistry, biology and physics to design and make new biomaterials by determining what the component molecules would need to be and how they would need to be connected to each other in order to give the final material its desired properties.”

“This can be done by taking advantage of the body's natural processes, by mimicking the body's properties in that location, by releasing additional drugs when and where they are needed, or by contracting, expanding, flexing, solidifying, flowing, adhering or vibrating as needed,” he says.

Tom Apple, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, emphasizes that although UD does not have a medical school, the new center is aligned with the University's commitment to build research relationships with neighboring clinical collaborators. The program will capitalize on the strong synergy that has already been established with the A.I. du Pont Hospital for Children and the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care Health System.

“It may not be tomorrow, it may not even be by the end of the five-year grant,” Beebe says, “but we fully expect the results of this program to be translated into clinical applications that will have an impact on patients.”

UD already has two COBRE programs, one on prevention and treatment of osteoarthritis and the other on membrane protein production and characterization.

“This new COBRE program is yet another step toward increasing UD's capabilities and visibility in the life sciences,” Michael Chajes, dean of the College of Engineering, says. “And with six faculty from arts and sciences and five from engineering, it's a perfect example of the interdisciplinary approach that's integral to success in this growing area of research and education.”

Article by Diane Kukich