Interview with Dr. Mauro Ferrari
By Karen Lightman, managing director, MEMS Industry Group
Q: Dr. Ferrari, you are sometimes called ‘the father of BioMEMS.’ What is BioMEMS and how does it relate to more commonly understood electronic components such as semiconductors?
A: The word ”BioMEMS” indicates the application of MEMS technology to biology and medicine. Examples include micro- and nanofluidics systems for drug delivery; biological applications of lab-on-chip platforms; and micromechanical sensors for medicine, like cantilever beams for the detection of cancer biomarkers.
The link with semiconductor technology is that MEMS technology largely uses processing techniques that are strongly connected to microelectronic fabrication. The field first emerged in the early 1990’s. I was fortunate to be at Berkeley at that time, and to be the founding director of the first BioMEMS Laboratory.
Q: How is MEMS technology used in BioMEMS systems such as of Personal Molecular Drug-delivery Systems (PMDS)? How does your technology differ from other types of drug-delivery systems such as MEMS-based insulin pumps?
A: My lab is co-developing the PDMS with NanoMedical Systems of Austin, Texas. We “fly in formation,” in the sense that the company focuses on product development, and we push the boundaries of basic science and technology exploration. We work in very close collaboration: it has been an extraordinarily successful partnership so far! The key enabling technology is our nanochannel technology. We have many patents in the area – our work in the field actually was at the very beginning of nanofluidics, in 1994 at Berkeley. The nanochannels allow us to take advantage of very unique transport laws that only happen at the nanoscale, so that we can tailor both constant and time-variable release of drugs from implants. This allows us to maximize therapeutic efficacy while minimizing adverse side effects. The system works like a ‘nanogland’ and is fully implantable: no tubes through the skin or injections. It is a unique system.
Q: What are the most promising applications of PDMS?
A: The most promising applications of the PDMS are for the treatment of cancer (metronomic therapy), for controlling pain in cancer and many other areas of medicine, for infectious diseases, neurodegenerative pathologies and psychotic disorders. Frankly, I believe that over time the effects of the PDMS revolution will be pervasive throughout medicine. I cannot imagine situations where a “smarter”, patient-tailored delivery of drugs for higher efficacy and reduced side effects will not result in better health care!
Q: What are some other examples of BioMEMS applications?
A: I look at silicon as a transformational new material for medicine. Nanoporous silicon is fully degradable in the body, and the degradation products are benign substances that are already present in all of us and our regular diets. Based on this we have developed injectable targeted drug-delivery systems for cancer (with Leonardo Biosystems), and ‘bionanoscaffolds’ for the post-traumatic regeneration of bone (with partners at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Rice University, Texas A&M, Northwestern, the Methodist Research Institute and Harvard). With Leonardo Biosystems, we are also developing mesoporous silicon nanochips for the capture and enrichment of proteins and peptides from blood samples, with the objective of developing tests for the early detection of cancer, and the real-time monitoring of the efficacy of drug treatments.
Dr. Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D., is Professor and Chairman of the Department of NanoMedicine and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, University of Texas. His current positions include tenured Full Professor and Division Head, Division of Nanomedicine, in the UT Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), a multi-institutional department serving UT Austin, UT Health Science Center at Houston, and U.T. MD Anderson Cancer Center.
On November 5, 2009, Ferrari delivered the closing keynote to more than 150 MEMS industry executives attending the 2009 MEMS Executive Congress, an annual event hosted by MEMS Industry Group. This article is based on an interview conducted by Karen Lightman, managing director of MEMS Industry Group.
December 1, 2009