An interdisciplinary team of four Yale scientists recently received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create “smart” nanostructures for use in the delivery of vaccines.

The team, led by assistant professor of biomedical engineering Tarek Fahmy, seeks to develop vaccine delivery systems that can bypass the body’s natural barriers and target specific cells. Michael Caplan, professor of physiology and cell biology and a co-investigator on the grant, said that the nanostructures in development by the scientists could, for example, deliver vaccines to antigen-presenting dendritic cells, which he describes as “the master switch cells of the immune system.”

While Caplan said he is unsure whether or not the research that will result from the grant will produce a usable vaccine, he is optimistic about the project.

“[There are] tremendous hurdles to introducing any new pharmaceutical or vaccine, [but] there are lots of reasons to be optimistic,” he said.

Most current vaccine delivery systems involve introducing weakened or dead pathogens to the body in order to elicit an immune response. The provoked response leaves the body with a “memory” of the disease, which allows it to respond better to a future, real infection.

But the nanostructure delivery systems that Caplan said the two-year effort hopes to produce can accomplish this task much more efficiently by directly targeting the cells central to the body’s immune response.

Ira Mellman, chair of the cell biology department, will focus on the targeting of these dendritic cells, according to a statement released on Tuesday by the University. Mellman’s group will use dendritic cells grown in the laboratory to test the effectiveness of the targeted delivery systems.

Lydia Cai ’07, a biomedical engineering major taking Fahmy’s class this semester, said that although the grant money was awarded to Yale professors, undergraduates in the biomedical engineering department might benefit from the grant as well. Most undergraduates majoring in biomedical engineering work in labs run by professors in order to gain research experience, she said.

While Cai said students are primarily attracted to particular labs because of an interest in the topic, she said labs with more financial resources tend to be popular.

“It’s definitely a plus, because you kind of want to work in a lab with the resources to support your project,” Cai said. “If [the lab director] doesn’t have the money, then that would be a problem.”

Caplan said the grant would be numerous opportunities for undergraduates interested in working on projects funded by the grant. Students interested in the design of nanostructures will be involved with the labs led by Fahmy and Mark Saltzman, the chair of the biomedical engineering department who is also a co-investigator for the grant, he said. Students interested in evaluating the biological response to the delivery system will likely participate in his or Mellman’s lab, he said.