ORNL nanoscience center 'Jump Starts' medical compound device

May 24, 2005

A device that could create custom-tailored medical compounds faster than ever before is one of the first projects launched under the new Center for Nanophase Materials Science at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Project director Joseph Matteo, founder and CEO of the local research firm NanoTek, is building a small, microfluidic machine to quickly and reliably synthesize drugs, medicines, diagnostic imaging agents and other compounds.

His work is part of the CNMS Jump Start Program, which gives selected nanoscience projects access to ORNL research facilities and staff before the center begins full operation in October.

The program includes more than 75 research proposals, all of which are evaluated by an external scientific review committee, selected for scientific merit and quality, and will be published in the scientific press.

"Being local and one of the first commercial clients of the CNMS, I feel added responsibility to make this a success," Matteo said. "There is a huge amount of support from the community. The road is by no means easy, but this region has a unique opportunity in having the first of five of these centers in the country, and we are trying to take advantage of it."

CNMS is the first of five Nanoscale Science Research Centers being built by the Department of Energy. The center will be housed in an 80,000-square-foot building on Chestnut Ridge beside the Spallation Neutron Source.

Assisting Matteo will be ORNL researchers Timothy McKnight and Gomez Wright, of Engineering Science and Technology Division and Michael Simpson of the Condensed Matter Sciences Division. Simpson is a CNMS Theme Leader, and a joint ORNL-University of Tennessee scientist.

Matteo's device uses ORNL developed technology to manipulate ions in a stream of solution. Potential commercial applications can be found in industry, medicine, and even bio-threat detection. The high-speed, low-volume characteristics are ideally suited to demanding applications such as individualized medicines and drugs tailored to each patients needs; short-order manufacturing of drugs/chemicals with a short shelf life; and a better way to make short-lived radioactive compounds for medical diagnostic imaging technology such as positron emission tomography (PET).

His ideas to enhance the chemistry of drug development offer many advantages over commercially available technology. While current methods can rapidly explore thousands of variants of a compound to achieve a certain solution, their parallel high-volume nature is not information driven. A closed-loop, information driven system offers a serial or sequential discovery method and promises a more "intelligent" drug-making process, Matteo said.

"Combinatorial or parallel processing chemistry can do a process thousands of times to get the right answer, but its like casting a large net to capture a small solution," Matteo said. "If you've pointed the device in the wrong direction, you'll need to cast again.

"With a serial approach, if you can learn something every step of the way, you can very efficiently find a solution. The challenge is to build more and more intelligence into a closed-loop discovery machine that synthesizes the drug, tests it, gets information along the way, feeds it back, and optimizes the drug to the desired properties."

The concept presents the potential for "point of use" synthesis of drugs and a new era of personalized medicine, where patients visit the doctor, have tests done, and receive medicines formulated especially for them in minutes.

Matteo, a former division director for CTI, a Knoxville molecular imaging firm, cited Tech 2020, an Oak Ridge regional economic development organization, and ORNL's Technology Transfer directorate for encouraging his project. He said establishment of the CNMS was the driver that inspired him to pursue his ideas for nanotechnology applications.

"I had a fundamental interest in nanotechnology for many years. Once I found an application and learned more about it, I became really intrigued, but the real launching pad for me deciding to do this was the CNMS facility being built here," Matteo said. "Certainly, without that I would not have done this. It is absolutely the cornerstone."

Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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