Chad Mirkin

Professor Chad A. Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology, speaks to a group of students and faculty Wednesday about the future of the science and the potential of chemical engineering.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

Packaging the building blocks of DNA into microscopic nanostructures capable of being applied as a skin cream may be the future of cancer treatment, according to one nanotechnology pioneer speaking on Wednesday.

Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University, talked about the groundbreaking potential of chemically engineering nucleic acids and constructing DNA arranged in a spiky, spherical nanostructure that utilizes normal cellular processes to attack the genetic component of cancer cells.

Mirkin is researching therapeutic application for nanostructures ranging from one to 100 nanometers in length, about one-millionth of an inch.

“Right now, we have a disease like glioblastoma [most common form of brain tumor] that is basically a death sentence,” Mirkin said. “If we could create chemical constructs that could be delivered systemically to increase the lifespan of a patient from one year to five years, that would be unbelievable. To cure would be spectacular.”

The technology has successfully interrupted the growth of cancer in more than 50 types of cells and tissues, such as liver and nerve cells. Crucially, cancerous cell bodies that resist treatment are permitting the nanostructures to enter the cell for the first time — essential in delivering medicine to cancer sites effectively.

Mirkin said trials treating brain tumors in mice are already showing promising results.

“Gene regulation has the promise of treating and curing almost every disease out there that has a genetic basis, that’s the tantalizing and exciting prospect of it,” he said.

He said he was honored to discuss his research at UT.

“The Center for Nano- and Molecular Science is an incredible place,” Mirkin said.

“[UT] has a very passionate group of scientists and engineers who share a love of
scientific curiosity.”

Biomedical engineering graduate student Brandon Slaughter said he wrote to Mirkin in fall 2010 inviting him to speak at UT. He was initially rebuffed but persisted in proposing dates well into the future.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “We didn’t expect to get Professor Mirkin to come here, especially at a student-invited seminar. We discussed a few research opportunities this morning, so there may be something going forward,”
Chemical engineering graduate student William Liechty said Mirkin has the rare gift of being able to take lab technologies and translate them into com-mercial technologies.

“He did a great job covering a number of academic fields and tying it together in terms of controlling molecular architecture to do a number of neat things, such as diagnostic and therapeutic applications,” Liechty said. “Taking scientific discoveries and making them useful technologies is inspirational.”