Wired News ran my profile of Dr. James Baker, a leading nanomedicine researcher at the University of Michigan. The editor I worked with on this was great, and very patient as I juggled this story with a string of job interviews, the duties of daddyhood and an increasingly pregnant wife.
But Wired pays by the word, so some of my story had to be cut. I understand. I've been on the other side of that editor/freelancer relationship before and I've had to strictly enforce word-count limits.
So, I'll briefly interrupt my blogging sabbatical to give you some passages that did not make the final cut.
What sets Baker apart from many academic researchers is he is not too concerned with whether his solutions defy conventional wisdom. And, as the proud papa of two spinoff companies, and a third about to be hatched, he's not just doing research for research's sake. If you understand Baker's decade-and-a-half journey you can get a pretty good idea of how nanotech, itself, has traveled from sci-fi fantasy to FDA trials.
Yet the 52-year-old former immunologist with the gentle voice does not come across as a guy who collects accolades. Baker is simply a researcher who has made it a point to cut through barriers … relentlessly … until problems are solved.
The first Gulf War is what did it. Like many returning veterans of any era, Baker came home with the conviction that life is precious, so let's not waste any time. "I decided that if I ever got back here … I was just going to do things that I felt were important and the hell with it," Baker says. "I'm not going to worry about, 'will this get me this grant' or whatever."
Baker spent about 15 years chipping away at the two main barriers to success in bringing nanobiotech out of the lab. We'll call them "shrinkage" and "linkage."
Nanotech is not only about size, but also the ability to engineer the nanoparticle to do what you want it to do and when you want it done.
U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative officials often talk about "converging technologies," that is, connecting all the sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, information technology – and making connections as all these disciplines converge at the nanoscale.
That's the thinking behind the University of Michigan's new Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and the Biological Sciences, which Baker will head. "I think any university that doesn't develop collaborative centers like this is going to be frozen out," he says.
Hopefully, Baker says, that will solve the problem of engineers, for example, pushing one of their innovations as a cancer therapy without ever really checking with the biologists. "Because if the people who made the material put it into biological models, they were simplistic ones that really don't have relevance to therapeutics."
"Celebrex, Vioxx, all of these drugs that popped up here recently with problems, are whole-body administered. They go everywhere," (nanotech pioneer Donald) Tomalia says.
And these scandals are part of the reason nanotech entrepreneur/researchers like Tomalia and Baker are finally coming in from the cold. Or, Tomalia puts it, "there's a lot more sunshine up here in our life lately. And I think it's because our time is finally coming where the world has gone through all of these other options and they're looking at what is available out there in the nano field as nano building blocks. And their aren't any, in my opinion, that have the versatility and the systematic control that dendrimers have to offer."
Tomalia, of course, is not an objective observer. He's banking on the success of the nanobabies he's nursed for two decades through his company, Dendritic NanoTechnologies Inc.
The full story is here.