Biointerfaces Thriving in NCRC Environment

At the Biointerfaces Institute (BI), established at NCRC in January 2012, researchers redefine the frontiers of health sciences by fostering cross-disciplinary technological breakthroughs of nanotechnology, advanced materials, cell engineering, and microfluidics. A key strength of Biointerfaces is that all of its 21 research groups have co-located into NCRC’s state-of-the-art research facility to enhance interaction, collaboration, translation, and entrepreneurship.

BI’s collaborations have produced a unique polymer surface that can grow reprogrammed adult stem cells to produce specific cell types in mice. The new surface avoids the problems associated with growing stem cells on living tissue, representing a significant step forward for stem cell therapies. BI researchers have also developed the first ever superoleophobic surfaces by considering the effects of re-entrant surface texture on surface wettability. Such surfaces have a wide range of commercial applications, including the development of surfaces with enhanced solvent-resistance; stain-resistant textiles; 'non-stick' coatings; controlling protein and cell adhesion on surfaces; engineering surfaces with enhanced resistance to organic solvents; reduction of biofouling; and the development of finger-print resistant surfaces for flat-panel displays, cell-phones, and sunglasses.

Joerg Lahann, Director, Biointerfaces Institute, and Professor, Departments of Chemical Engineering, Material Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Macromolecular Science and Engineering, states, “What we’re doing is changing a paradigm. We want to change the way [biomedical] technologies are developed.”

BI is aided in its quest by another equally critical type of interface—daily, face-to-face interactions among researchers from diverse disciplines—to break through silos, spur collaborations, and drive innovation.

Interdisciplinary collaborations at BI help speed the translation of new research findings into practical applications. “We are pooling UM’s strengths in these different areas to focus on facilitating interactions between people who develop technologies—the ‘toolbox’ people—and people who have big research problems to solve,” said Prof. Lahann. Already, BI collaborations with researchers in the Translational Oncology Program have advanced research in stem cells and cancer drugs. “Facilitating those kinds of matches is what the Biointerfaces Institute is all about.”

The BI spurs interdisciplinary collaboration by running Research Challenges. These interdisciplinary workshops stimulate research collaborations across academic fields by bringing together a diverse group of researchers to discuss a particularly challenging research topic. Participants include researchers from each of the BI’s four schools and colleges, as well as faculty from the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and Arts and non-UM academic and industrial partners. Recent BI Challenges have been held in the areas of Noble Metal Nanoparticles for Biomedical Applications, Detecting Rare Cells and Particles, and Nanomedicine. BI’s Challenge on Detecting Rare Cells and Particles also launched a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation for an Engineering Research Center.

Challenge participants are encouraged to analyze topics from different angles to develop cutting-edge, collaborative research proposals for a seed money competition. Researchers whose proposals are selected receive not only seed monies but also laboratory space in the BI Integration Space. The Integration Space provides an opportunity for non-BI academic and corporate collaborators to work with BI researchers and advance the bench-to-bedside time frame. Three external UM research groups are currently using BI’s Integration Space.

One of the most important aspects of the Biointerfaces Institute is to instill multidisciplinary collaboration in the next generation of researchers. According to Prof. Paul Krebsbach, the Dr. Roy H. Roberts Professor of Dentistry, Professor and Chair, Department of Biologic and Materials Sciences, and Biointerfaces Institute Executive Committee member,  “The BI’s interdisciplinary approach to scientific problem solving is also translated to student learning.  Students and postdoctoral scholars at BI train in an interdisciplinary collaborative environment that is difficult to replicate in a traditional university department and this naturally enhances their educational experiences.” Additionally, our non-faculty researchers have created their own self-directed network to enhance research goals, encourage entrepreneurism, and just have fun. They are coordinating informal coffee hours and seminars as well as developing their own Research Challenge.

In addition to dedicated research lab space, the Biointerfaces Institute has shared research spaces in which suites of instruments are organized for specific research purposes. This allows researchers to work on various analytical tools without transporting samples large distances. One example is the Nanotechnicum that houses a number of analytic, characterization, and synthesis instruments. Its purpose is to provide material synthesis and characterization capabilities to generate large numbers of samples for translational research purposes, as well as to characterize those samples and materials for pre-clinical studies.

“NCRC gives us a home to build a research program where people from many different colleges can come together because they share the same research interests and philosophy,” said Prof. Lahann. “We are thrilled about being part of NCRC, because we believe that it is the ideal environment for interdisciplinary and translational research at the University of Michigan.”