Advancing Medicine through Nanotechnology: A Look at Houston Methodist Hospital

Mar 2014

by Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D.

Houston Methodist Hospital is one of the biggest hospitals in Texas. Our Research Institute turns 10 this year and has made great strides in advancing medicine that focuses on getting effective treatments to our patients.

We have grown to 280 members and 1,400 credentialed researchers in our first 10 years. While this may seem small in comparison to the larger teaching hospitals, we are small by design. There are many excellent universities and institutions that excel at basic research, of course—it is the foundation of all science and technology. Our goal is to take the next step in helping our patients—building bridges from labs to the clinic. All our research is geared toward rapid application and begins with identifying our clinical needs. We perform some basic research in the spaces between scientific and clinical areas. Most of our work focuses on platforms like nanomedicine, information systems, and outcomes research that benefit multiple disciplines of medicine. And we partner these with what some have called a nirvana of applied research- expertise and strong support systems for clinical trials, small-scale clinical-grade manufacturing, and regulatory guidance for FDA approval.

Houston Methodist made the early choice to focus on a handful of emerging, exciting areas of applied medicine that, we believe, hold the most promise to transform the lives of our patients, and patients around the world.

One such area is nanomedicine, the development of safe and potent nanotechnologies for use in diagnosis and medical therapies. I began my own career in nanomedicine at Ohio State University, then transferred my laboratory first to UT Health Science Center at Houston and then to Houston Methodist in 2010. I served as special expert on nanotechnology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 2003-2005, providing leadership into the formulation, refinement, and approval of the NCI’s Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, currently the world’s largest program in medical nanotechnology

I’ve been fortunate to work with principal investigators doing transformational work in nanomedicine at Houston Methodist, including Ennio Tasciotti, Ph.D., Tony Hu, Ph.D., Paolo Decuzzi, Ph.D., and Haifa Shen, Ph.D., and other excellent scientists. Their work is being applied to areas of medicine as diverse as rapid-diagnostic devices, drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and imaging. This work has attracted millions of dollars to Texas in public research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, and the progress our researchers make is published every month in major, high-impact journals such as Nature, Nature Nanotechnology, American Chemical Society Nano, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Why such interest in nanomedicine? Because it has already transformed other areas of our lives, including electronics, computing, and manufacturing, and because we have figured out how to make nanotechnology safe for people. The silicon-based nanoparticles being developed in our laboratories have a low toxicity profile in the body and are usually removed from the bloodstream in 24 to 48 hours. The nanoparticles find their targets and act precisely, allowing them to efficiently accomplish their intended functions, such as delivering life-saving drugs, killing cancer cells, or improving the resolution of diagnostic imaging.

The next step—now underway—is to show how nanomedicine-based therapies can improve upon traditional ones, and for this, collaboration is key. In Houston we have the Alliance for NanoHealth, established with the support of U.S. Rep. John Culberson, Gov. Rick Perry, and TAMEST co-founder and retired U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The Alliance unites Houston’s top academic institutions working in the field of nanomedicine. I have had the privilege of leading the Alliance since 2005, succeeding Bob Bast, Jr., M.D., of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the late Samuel Ward “Trip” Casscells III, M.D., of UT Health, a great man of exceptional vision, to whom all of Texas owes gratitude for his inspired work and leadership. Dozens of collaborative projects in nanomedicine have been spurred forward by the Alliance, and for that and other reasons, we believe it has been a huge success.

Nanomedicine’s secrets harbor great opportunities for Texas. Having participated in the creation, Texans are world leaders. Our state stands to benefit greatly from its application to health care, science, and education, and because of the economic opportunities it presents to entrepreneurs. Not everything must be big in Texas. Indeed, some of the things we’re famous for should be very, very small.

Mauro FerrariMauro Ferrari, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Houston Methodist Research Institute and director of the Institute for Academic Medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital, is a regular speaker at TAMEST events, and is generally considered to be one of the founders of nanomedicine.


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