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BMES members featured in PBS special about cutting-edge science

Several Biomedical Engineering Society members were featured in a special about scientific breakthroughs that appeared recently on PBS.

Dr. Paula Hammond of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dr. Eric Nauman and Evan Breedlove of Purdue University appeared in "Making Stuff Safer," where writer David Pogue explored the cutting-edge research of scientists and engineers who want to keep us out of harm’s way.

Hammond is working on a next-generation vaccine that could save millions from deadly disease. Nauman and Breedlove are working on better sports gear that will reduce the risk of everyday activities.

Other technology examined in the special includes innovations like smarter cars, new firefighting materials and safer buildings. Others are at work on technologies to thwart terrorist attacks.

CLICK HERE to view the special.

In a paper appearing in the Jan. 27 online issue of Nature Materials, MIT researchers, including Hammond, describe a new type of vaccine-delivery film that holds promise for improving the effectiveness of DNA vaccines, according to an MIT announcement. If such vaccines could be successfully delivered to humans, they could overcome not only the safety risks of using viruses to vaccinate against diseases such as HIV, but they would also be more stable, making it possible to ship and store them at room temperature.

This type of vaccine delivery would also eliminate the need to inject vaccines by syringe, according to the release. You just apply a patch for a few minutes, take it off and it leaves behind thin polymer films embedded in the skin.

Hammond’s team’s approach to delivering DNA to the skin involves creating a patch made of many layers of polymers embedded with the DNA vaccine. These polymer films are implanted under the skin using microneedles that penetrate about half a millimeter into the skin — deep enough to deliver the DNA to immune cells in the epidermis, but not deep enough to cause pain in the nerve endings of the dermis.

Once under the skin, the films degrade as they come in contact with water, releasing the vaccine over days or weeks. As the film breaks apart, the DNA strands become tangled up with pieces of the polymer, which protect the DNA and help it get inside cells.

The researchers can control how much DNA gets delivered by tuning the number of polymer layers. They can also control the rate of delivery by altering how hydrophobic (water-fearing) the film is. DNA injected on its own is usually broken down very quickly, before the immune system can generate a memory response. When the DNA is released over time, the immune system has more time to interact with it, boosting the vaccine’s effectiveness.

The polymer film also includes an adjuvant — a molecule that helps to boost the immune response. In this case, the adjuvant consists of strands of RNA that resemble viral RNA, which provokes inflammation and recruits immune cells to the area.

The ability to provoke inflammation is one of the key advantages of the new delivery system, says Michele Kutzler, an assistant professor at Drexel University College of Medicine. Other benefits include targeting the wealth of immune cells in the skin, the use of a biodegradable delivery material, and the possibility of pain-free vaccine delivery, she says.

Eric Nauman, Purdue University Neurotrauma Group biomechanical engineering professor, has patented a new helmet liner that reduces G-force to a player's brain by 50 percent, according to a university announcement. Nauman says reducing energy to the brain would be a huge leap forward for helmets that have remained largely unchanged for more than 30 years.

Nauman worked on the new liner with fellow inventors at Purdue's Human Injury Research and Regenerative Technologies after he spent years documenting what football impacts were doing to the brains of high school players. Tom Talavage, a co-researcher and Purdue biomedical engineering professor, says preventing concussions is laudable, but it is a red herring because it is subconcussive blows that create long-term damage.

The Purdue Neurotrauma Group's football brain injury research has been featured in Sports Illustrated, HBO Real Sports, NBC Nightly News, PBS Frontline, CNN American Morning, Discovery Channel Daily Planet and other media. The researchers, including health and kinesiology professor and athletic trainer Larry Leverenz, travel the nation teaching coaches and trainers how to prevent, recognize and remedy football brain injuries.