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For cutting-edge biomedical materials, try corn.

Article / Review by on February 6, 2012 – 8:30 pmNo Comments

For cutting-edge biomedical materials, try corn.
Students explore plant-derived materials for wound closures, tissue engineering.

Eliza Grinnell/ SEAS/ Students in the undergraduate teaching labs at SEAS are investigating plant-based materials that may help regrow damaged neurons. The team includes (from front to back) Godwin Abiola '14, Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering Assistant Director Sujata Bhatia, and Erfan Soliman '12.Eliza Grinnell/ SEAS/ Students in the undergraduate teaching labs at SEAS are investigating plant-based materials that may help regrow damaged neurons. The team includes (from front to back) Godwin Abiola ’14, Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering Assistant Director Sujata Bhatia, and Erfan Soliman ’12.

One might expect, these days, to find corn products in food, fuel, and fabric, but a corn-based glue that can heal an injured eyeball? That’s a-maize-ing.

Creating new materials from abundant, natural plant sources, today’s biomedical and biochemical engineers are finding clinical uses for new “custom” materials that were not even remotely considered in recent decades.

Both renewable and remarkable, plant-based medical products are on the cutting edge of a field called “sustainable biomaterials,” a topic so intriguing that 23 undergraduates chose to spend an extra week at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) to take a course on it during their winter break.

“It was engaging, comprehensive, and demonstrated just how ‘sexy’ science can be,” said Aubrey Walker ’15.

The seminar-style mini-course was led by Sujata Bhatia, assistant director for Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering, who arrived at SEAS last spring. As an industry scientist at DuPont, Bhatia had been at the forefront of research resulting in clinically relevant products, including plant-based tissue adhesives. She now brings that expertise to guide an agile and modern curriculum at SEAS.

Bhatia, who received a grant from the Harvard President’s January Innovation Fund for Faculty to offer the course, intended it as a “vehicle to really get undergraduates thinking about their paths in engineering, and to give a broader overview than they might get in any single course during the semester.”

“I hope that this will both draw undergraduates into the concentration and give concentrators the tools necessary to begin asking their own questions within the field,” she said.

For Walker, a freshman, the course was an inspiring introduction to the breadth of opportunities available in engineering.

“Through the lens of a bioengineer, I felt myself at the precipice of innovative solutions to some of our generation’s biggest problems,” he said. “I can’t imagine a more concise, intellectually stimulating, or rewarding program. I am very glad to have come back from my long break to gain this experience.”

During the week, the students attended foundational lectures on biomaterials and new methods of drug delivery. They also had the opportunity to survey some of the current research in the field by attending the Bio-Inspired Engineering International Symposium, which was hosted by Harvard’s Center for Nanoscale Systems on Jan. 17.

Brandon Geller and Robyn Tsukayama of the Harvard Office for Sustainability gave a guest lecture on biopolymers, providing students insight into the strides that the University is making to integrate the fruits of bioengineering research into its operations.

In addition to seeing the work of experts in the field, students were able to learn about research that their classmates are undertaking. Seniors in engineering, including Erfan Soliman ’12, led one of the week’s sessions by discussing their thesis research and introducing the groups to the laboratory and design spaces that are available to students at SEAS.

Soliman’s work, which combines agar gel and corn-derived carbon nanotubes into a substrate for neural regeneration, extends far beyond the traditional boundaries of his own concentration, electrical engineering.

In addition to presenting a poster at the Bio-Inspired Engineering Symposium, Soliman was able to connect with other students, across disciplines. He teamed up in the lab with Godwin Abiola ’14, a biomedical engineering student, in January, teaching him about circuit theory in order to measure the electrical conductivity of the agar gels.

The partnership between Soliman and Abiola is typical of a trend of collaboration at SEAS that Bhatia believes is here to stay.

“It’s very powerful, and it helps students appreciate early on the importance of bringing diverse perspectives to a project,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in the interfaces between different disciplines. That’s where all the cool things can happen.”

By Mureji Fatunde ’12
SEAS Communications

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About Harvard Medical School (HMS)

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“Since 1872, Harvard Medical School has been the incubator of bold ideas—a place where extraordinary people advance education, science and health care with unrelenting passion.

Whether training tomorrow’s doctors and scientists, decoding the fundamental nature of life, advancing patient care or improving health delivery systems around the world, we are never at rest. Allied with some of the world’s best hospitals, research institutes and a University synonymous with excellence, the School’s mission remains as ambitious as it is honorable: to alleviate human suffering caused by disease.”

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About Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.

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About Harvard University.

Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.

Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. Harvard faculty are engaged with teaching and research to push the boundaries of human knowledge. For students who are excited to investigate the biggest issues of the 21st century, Harvard offers an unparalleled student experience and a generous financial aid program, with over $160 million awarded to more than 60% of our undergraduate students. The University has twelve degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offering a truly global education.

‘Universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking and harnessing new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modeling environments that promote dialogue and debate… The ideal and breadth of liberal education that embraces the humanities and arts as well as the social and natural sciences is at the core of Harvard’s philosophy. ’/ Drew Gilpin Faust

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* The above story is adapted from materials provided by Harvard University

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