By Salvatore Salamone
April 15, 2003 | A new consortium aims to bring nanotechnology research, development, and production expertise to the life sciences. At the same time, federal funding for life science nanotech research is on the rise.
“Our number 1 focus is the pharmaceutical industry,” says Larry Thompson, CEO of the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium (NJNC), a joint effort of Lucent Technologies, the state of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “[Pharmaceutical companies] want nanotechnology devices for drug discovery and drug delivery.”
Indeed, much of the life science-related nanotechnology work to date has centered on building better analytic tools, such as microarrays, which are commonly used in drug discovery research. However, most life science efforts have been at the proof-of-concept stage (see “The Incredible Shrinking Microarray,” Sept. 2002 Bio-IT World, page 30).
The NJNC’s goals are to speed the development of nanotechnology-based drug discovery and diagnostic devices and to work with pharmaceutical companies to develop commercial products in these areas. “Some of the areas where we think commercial products are likely include [nanotechnology devices] that perform glucose analysis, protein separation in real time, and analysis of all types of fluids,” Thompson says.
To accomplish these goals, the consortium will tap its members’ resources.
The heart of the NJNC is a nanofabrication laboratory in Murray Hills, N.J. The consortium says the lab is the only 200mm wafer fabrication facility in the United States dedicated to nanotechnology development. It includes a 16,400-square-foot clean room and state-of-the-art production equipment valued at more than $400 million. Among the tools available in the lab is a nanolithographic e-beam device that is used to etch nanoscale features onto surfaces. The lab, formerly part of Bell Labs, is now run by the NJNC, and many of the lab’s 25 full-time workers came over from Bell Labs.
Last fall, the NJNC got $2 million in funding from the state of New Jersey and $2 million from a House defense appropriations bill to get the ball rolling. However, the consortium is expected to become a self-sustaining entity, making money though memberships and the commercialization of nanotech products.
Pharmaceutical companies wishing to take advantage of the nanotechnology expertise within the NJNC can either become members of the consortium or work out some form of compensation. (Such arrangements will likely give NJNC a portion of revenue derived from any commercial spin-off products.) While the NJNC would not discuss fees, it is clear it intends to leverage the lab facilities and the lab staff’s expertise as a selling point for working with the consortium.
One pharmaceutical company research director who did not want to be identified finds the NJNC concept intriguing: “Most companies cannot afford $4 million to $5 million to build their own clean room. And we have no one on staff with any background in designing, prototyping, or manufacturing nanoscale devices -- devices we’re exploring for high-throughput analysis research.”
While the NJNC’s goal is commercialization of nanotechnology products, many scientists are still interested in conducting basic research. Much of today’s nanotechnology research is being carried out by universities and is funded by federal grants. And, fortunately, the Bush administration seems to have a relatively strong level in interest in funding this area.
President Bush’s 2004 budget includes $847 million for the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The funding, which is 9.5 percent higher than in the 2003 budget, is for nanotechnology research and development to be conducted by 10 federal agencies (with all of the work being overseen by the OSTP). This funding applies to research that cuts across many disciplines. However, life science-specific nanotechnology work is being conducted at the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. These agencies were allocated $247 million and $70 million, respectively, through the NNI in the 2004 budget.
The type of nanotechnology research conducted varies from agency to agency. For instance, the NIH is looking to fund research in three main areas:
- “The creation and use of structures, devices, and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small size and that may be used to achieve a fundamental understanding of biological processes or contribute to disease detection, therapy, or prevention”
- Research proposals that deal with the “conception and fabrication of devices that will effectively detect and analyze nanoscale entities of relevance to biomedicine”
- Studies of biological systems at the nanoscale level
The NSF funding priorities are broader: Some of the funding goes toward understanding how biological systems work at the nanoscale level, and some goes toward development of nanotech devices that could be used in bioinformatic sensors.