Thomas Web­ster, the new chair of the Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering, keeps a tita­nium hip implant on his desk. “If you look at bone or any nat­ural tissue in the body, it’s com­posed of nano­ma­te­rials,” he said. “But if you look at what we’re implanting today” — he pointed to the tita­nium hip — “it’s not nano.”

The syn­thetic mate­rials used as replace­ment tis­sues today are typ­i­cally com­posed of mil­limeter or micron sized par­ti­cles. While human cells are on the micron scale, the mate­rials they con­sist of, pro­teins included, are much smaller.

Webster’s team has cre­ated implants for bone, vas­cular and neural set­tings using nanopar­ti­cles instead. “No matter what tissue we’ve looked at so far, we’re able to increase tissue growth and make that implant last longer in the body than what the field is cur­rently using,” he said.

The expla­na­tion for their suc­cess is simple: they’re cre­ating an envi­ron­ment that is sim­ilar to what the cells are used to. “Cells rec­og­nize these nano­ma­te­rials as more friendly,” Web­ster explained. “More like the tis­sues that they them­selves created.”

For one project, Webster’s team is using highly con­duc­tive carbon nan­otubes com­bined with an injectable, bio-​​compatible polymer to repair car­diac tissue after heart attacks. “Car­diomy­ocytes” — or heart cells — “will ‘crawl’ onto this heart patch faster,” he said. “They will grow and they will beat faster than when other mate­rials are used in this way.”

The research team has also used nano­ma­te­rials to improve neural regen­er­a­tion in stroke patients, com­bining carbon nan­otubes with stem cells. Sur­pris­ingly, the nan­otubes alone work better than stem cells alone, but the com­bi­na­tion of the two works best of all.

Having taken his work to sev­eral start-​​up com­pa­nies, Web­ster is a keen pro­po­nent of industry part­ner­ships. As a chair, he hopes to explore col­lab­o­ra­tions between fac­ulty and industry to a greater extent.

We have this great expe­ri­en­tial learning pro­gram here at North­eastern,” he said. “We need to extend that into the research area.”
Web­ster has already invited rep­re­sen­ta­tives of sev­eral com­mer­cial orga­ni­za­tions to listen to fac­ulty pre­sen­ta­tions of their research, and then brain­storm ways of improving col­lab­o­ra­tion through cen­ters or spin-​​offs.

While the age-​​old stan­dard has been to draw a line between acad­emia and com­merce, that model is rapidly changing. “I think we’ve got to make that line blurry because there’s a lot that can be learned both ways,” Web­ster said. “We need to help industry and industry needs to help us.”