Picotechnology in the center of new research partnership

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity and Wen­zhou Med­ical Uni­ver­sity in China have part­nered to com­bine their exper­tise in nan­otech­nology and med­i­cine, respec­tively, to col­lab­o­rate on research focusing on reducing eye infections caused by contact lenses and intraocular devices.

Through this part­ner­ship, the researchers will explore the emerging field of picotech­nology, which involves the manip­u­la­tion of matter on an even smaller scale than is used in nanotechnology.

“Nanomed­i­cine is par­tic­u­larly an area of focus for our research at the Col­lege of Engi­neering, and picomed­i­cine is taking the field to the next fron­tier,” said Nadine Aubry, dean of Northeastern’s College of Engineering.

Aubry and Wen­zhou Med­ical Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Qu Jia for­mally estab­lished the part­ner­ship at a cer­e­mony at North­eastern on Monday, when they signed a mem­o­randum of under­standing. Thomas Web­ster, the Art Zafiropoulo Chair and pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering, will lead Northeastern’s research team as part of this initiative.

“This is just the start of some­thing great,” said Web­ster, who vis­ited Wen­zhou Med­ical Uni­ver­sity ear­lier this year.

MOU Signing Ceremony

Thomas Webster, the Art Zafiropoulo Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, speaks to guests at a ceremony held for the new research partnership between Northeastern and Wenzhou Medical University in China. He will lead Northeastern’s research team as part of the partnership. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Nanomaterials lead the way

Web­ster is an inter­na­tion­ally renowned researcher who has pio­neered the use of nan­otech­nology to improve med­ical devices. He is the founder and editor- in- chief of the Inter­na­tional Journal of Nanomed­i­cine, and he is pres­i­dent of the U.S. Society for Bio­ma­te­rials. His lab’s work to date includes cre­ating injectable nano­ma­te­rials that pro­mote the growth and regen­er­a­tion of bones and car­ti­lage, and devel­oping nano­ma­te­rials that fight viruses and infec­tions. He has also launched eight com­pa­nies, holds numerous patents, and is one of the most- cited researchers in the area of mate­rials science.

Eye infections are a costly problem

North­eastern will col­lab­o­rate with Wen­zhou Med­ical Uni­ver­sity and its Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­rials and Engi­neering. To kick off the col­lab­o­ra­tion Web­ster has iden­ti­fied a series of research projects that focus on reducing eye infec­tions caused by con­tact lenses and intraoc­ular devices used to test for glau­coma. One project would involve Webster’s team devel­oping nanosen­sors that could detect and respond to eye infec­tions, and the projects col­lec­tively would leverage the Chi­nese researchers’ exper­tise in ophthalmology.

According to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, keratitis—a painful eye infec­tion often linked to improper con­tact lens use—leads to 1 mil­lion doctor and hos­pital visits annu­ally, at a cost of $175 mil­lion to the U.S. health­care system.

“There is great poten­tial for us to col­lab­o­rate,” Qu said, via a trans­lator, adding that com­bining their insti­tu­tions’ exper­tise in nan­otech­nology and med­i­cine will pro­duce great patient outcomes.

Picotechnology vs. nanotechnology

The part­ner­ship, Web­ster said, could also posi­tion the uni­ver­sity at the fore­front of the emerging field of picotech­nology. The diam­eter of one strand of human hair, Web­ster said, is about 80,000 nanome­ters. Picotech­nology, he explained, involves research on an even smaller scale.

The two fields can also be lever­aged in dif­ferent ways, he noted. Nano­ma­te­rials are built atom by atom, while pico­science focuses on the elec­trons cir­cu­lating within the atom, and changing how these elec­trons are dis­trib­uted can pro­duce inter­esting prop­er­ties, he said.

Web­ster described one poten­tial med­ical appli­ca­tion of picotech­nology, as it relates to this part­ner­ship. One problem with intraoc­ular devices, he said, is that bac­teria stick to them. But exciting the elec­trons with infrared wave­lengths could cause the bac­teria to instead be repelled away.

“Picotech­nology can get pretty tech­nical,” he said, “but it’s all about the electrons.”

Research that solves real problems, experience that teaches

Aubry added that the part­ner­ship also high­lights the Col­lege of Engineering’s emphasis on bio­engi­neering and its new depart­ment in this area. It also aligns with Northeastern’s focus on use-​​inspired research to solve global chal­lenges in health, which is one of the university’s three pro­gram­matic research pillars.

In addi­tion to research, Web­ster noted that the col­lab­o­ra­tion would include oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dent exchanges between the two uni­ver­si­ties, co-​​op expe­ri­ences for North­eastern stu­dents, and Northeastern-​​led work­shops to help edu­cate their Chi­nese col­lab­o­ra­tors on the United States’ reg­u­la­tory policies.