While there is no doubt that considerable headway has been made in the understanding of nucleic acids and proteins, two macromolecular components of the cell — lipids and glycans — are not so easily elucidated when it comes to their roles in disease. "They are not made by template-driven biological approaches, so you can't get at their structure or regulation by looking at the genome. ... I don't think there's any other way of doing it because I believe we're beginning to see the wall in biomedical research with a purely genomics/proteomics perspective," says Jamey Marth, director of the Center for Nanomedicine at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "So we have to use new technological approaches to integrate them and that's where nanotechnologies come in."
It was this belief in nanotechnology that made it a no-brainer for Marth, previously a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the UC San Diego Medical Center, to accept the position of director of the new Center for Nanomedicine. The center will be launched and operated by both UCSB and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research. "I needed to make a big change in the orientation of my career in an environment that was at the envelope of nanotechnologies, and that's where Santa Barbara came in," says Marth, who joined the UCSB and Burnham Institute faculty in early July. "Their expertise in those fields synergize completely with the Burnham's abilities in biomedical research." Nanomedicine aims to utilize nanotechnology to develop drug delivery nanoparticles, biosensors, and other medical devices that function at the molecular scale for treating disease and repairing tissue.
The biggest challenge ahead for Marth and his team is not so much the development of nanoparticles, but learning how best to deliver them in the human body safely and effectively. "For the first time we're engineering devices that go into the body and we don't know a lot about them in many cases. … There are over 600 nanomaterials that are on the market right now, but that's just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "We need to understand more about them, their distribution, their fate, how to best use them. Different particles have different profiles in terms of their in vivo lifetimes and expectations of targeting or drug delivery."