Grant funds cell research, biotechnology efforts

Yale scientists are joining forces with mechanical engineering professors, supercomputing specialists and the National Eye Institute after the research group received a $6.5 million grant this week from the National Center for Design of Biomimetic Nanoconductors.

A team including Yale mechanical engineering professor David LaVan was awarded a five-year $6.5 million grant to duplicate nanomedical–at the scale of 100 nanometers — devices with foundations in essential proteins that regulate movements in and out of membranes in every living cell. The project’s lead researcher, professor Eric Jakobsson at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studies the biological membranes. LaVan brings training in material science and microfabrication to the project.

“The entire theme of the center is to build devices that mimic these ion transporters synthetically or making a hybrid device that uses natural channels and pumps in synthetic devices,” LaVan said.

The center’s research could lead some possibly revolutionary devices, LaVan said.

“One concept is a biobattery which is a way to generate electrical power inside the body by mimicking natural processes,” LaVan said.

He said the research can also lead to the design and development of retinal implants.

LaVan’s laboratory at Yale is interdisciplinary — it researches biotechnology, specifically material science, new methods of microfabrication and development of innovative biomaterials. One application of biomaterial research is developing polymers for implantable electrodes, as metal electrodes­ — a current method of treatment –­ can elicit an immune response after implantation.

Supercomputing researchers serve a different purpose in the center. Advanced computation will be used to optimize and test the feasibility of these new designs, LaVan said.

“Once we have an idea, we can identify which technologies are needed, but often the synthesis would be hard and expensive, which is why we model the system before we start building it,” he said. “Computational and theoretical work is necessary because the technologies are so new, we might not know how to make the device imagined.”

This type of research presents a break from older methods of production and design, where designers would create plans which would then be passed to manufacturers, LaVan said. In nanomedical device research, all of the scientists participate in the designing process.

“In a modern project, the design and the fabrication and the theoretical work is all done [in sequence],” LaVan said.

The new grant comes as the University is encouraging interdisciplinary scientific research.

“Yale is really making a mesh between the sciences like engineering and the medical aspect,” Yale spokeswoman for science and medicine Janet Emanuel said.

While the grant was not given to the Medical School, LaVan’s research has medical applications. In addition, LaVan is a member of Yale’s Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program, Emanuel said.

Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said he expects such interdisciplinary programs to allow for greater research opportunities.

“Research within single disciplines has occurred for many years and many of the unsolved problems require interdisciplinary research,” Alpern said. “The medical school is very interested in focusing on enchaining multidisciplinary clinical practice as well as interdisciplinary research.”

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