UNM Rainforest Innovations

The STC.UNM 2015 Innovation Fellow Award is given to a researcher and inventor who has a remarkable understanding of how the innate structures and processes of the natural world, both seen and unseen, can inform the man-made world of engineering. He is a superb architect and engineer of both worlds, able to translate the properties of nature into new materials that are technology innovations. His inventions are engineering feats that combine advanced materials science and biology to produce innovative membranes, sensors, thin films, and nanoparticles that are having a far-reaching and disruptive impact on cancer treatment, environmental remediation and protection and low-cost, green materials for industrial processes.

Dr. Brinker joined Sandia National Laboratories as a Member of the Technical Staff in 1979 and was appointed Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia and National Laboratory Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry at the University of New Mexico in 1991. Since 1999, he has been jointly employed at UNM and Sandia. He has said that his appointment at UNM has given him the opportunity to work with outstanding faculty and students, and that has made him more productive and creative and has had a greater impact on his scientific research and discoveries. His graduate students and postdocs have received many honors, including five MRS Graduate Student Awards (three Gold), the American Chemical Society Victor K. LaMer Award for best Ph.D. dissertation in colloid and surface chemistry, and the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering.

His influence is felt in many areas. He is one of four Sandia Fellows and Distinguished Affiliate Scientist at CINT (The Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies), and at UNM, he is Distinguished and Regents’ Professor in the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology and member of the UNM Cancer Center.

Internationally known for his work in advanced materials, Dr. Brinker has pioneered sol-gel processing, a method for making inorganic materials molecule by molecule. Over the past two decades his research team has developed self-assembly (wherein molecules spontaneously organize into nanostructures) as a robust and efficient means to create porous and composite thin film and particulate nanostructures with optimized properties and/or complex functionalities.

Mimicking the structures of the natural world has been key to his inventions. The abalone seashell has interlayering that make it very strong, hard, and tough. Dr. Brinker developed a method, pioneered by his lab and called Evaporation Induced Self-Assembly (EISA), to self-assemble diverse materials into coatings that mimic the seashell’s structure, which is twice as hard and 1,000 times as strong as its individual components. The coatings are transparent and twice as hard as the same materials mixed randomly. Scientists have been trying for years to build thin, laminated layers. The self-assembled method achieves this by alternating layers of flexible biopolymers (inorganic) with hard layers of calcium carbonate (organic). If the calcium layer cracks, it is stopped by the polymer layer and through low-temperature heat treatment the layers molecularly bond. The method can make porous and composite thin films to create many kinds of materials for membranes, sensor arrays, microelectronics, fluidic systems, and nanostructures. The technology received an R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine as one of 100 top high-technology inventions in applied technologies.

Dr. Brinker is also inspired by and studies natural systems, such as the fluid behaviors of the lotus flower whose leaves stay clean and impervious to water, and the molecular design of protein channels in biological cell membranes, to solve difficult engineering problems such as water collection and purification, self-cleaning and repair, energy harvesting, and selective cellular delivery. His process for producing low-cost aerogels led to the formation of local company Nanopore. He also received an R&D 100 Award for this technology. The aerogel technology is the underlying basis for a similar process that has produced his superhydrophobic coating technology, leading to the creation of start-up Lotus Leaf, and his biomimetic membranes for water purification and CO2 capture, each receiving R&D 100 Awards.

Structures in the natural world are often composed of very dissimilar materials (hard/soft, water repellent/water attracting) and 3D hierarchical architectures that when combined create optimal properties. To be able to imitate these natural models when designing engineered materials so that they can be efficiently and less expensively manufactured is one of the most important challenges in materials science and engineering.

Dr. Brinker’s nanoparticle technologies hold great promise for medicine as well. Cancer research and treatment today is centered around finding genetic mutations in cancer cells and finding or developing drugs that target the mutations. It will require genomic technologies, modeling tools, nanotherapeutics and nanoparticles to revolutionize treatment. It is a two-pronged approach of having the right drug and the right delivery system going directly to the cancer cell that will be crucial to successful treatment.

The mesoporous silica nanoparticle has a huge internal surface area and variable surface chemistry that can be loaded with diverse cargos. The external surfaces can be engineered to avoid or enhance binding with specific cell and tissue targets. The series of discoveries in nanostructures Dr. Brinker and his team of researchers have made has led to the creation of a delivery system, or nanocarrier, that can be used to deliver cancer drugs (cargos) to a wide variety of cancer targets, increasing the drug’s effectiveness and reducing side effects. It is a generic platform in the sense that it has great versatility. The nanoparticle technology, called the protocell, led to the creation of STC start-up Alpine Biosciences, Inc. (recently acquired by Oncothyreon).

The protocell technology, essentially a cell replica, consists of a silica nanoparticle about 150 nanometers in diameter (the size of a virus) and a lipid bilayer. It has cavities like a honeycomb that can store large amounts and varieties of drugs (a 1,000 times greater dosage than liposome carriers). Silica’s binding ability also contributes to keeping the cargo stable. The nanoparticle is encapsulated by the lipid bilayer (a liposome), a hydrophobic, cell-like membrane, that seals in the drugs until the protocell is within the cancer cell. The lipid bilayer also carries the particular ligand (molecule) that binds to the targeted receptor molecule overexpressed on the cancer cell, allowing the protocell to penetrate the cancer cell and kill it while leaving normal cells alone. The protocell is designed, through an elegant gating method, to release its drug cargo once it’s inside the cancer cell.

Liposome carriers alone are unstable, leaky and difficult to load with drugs. The protocell’s silica nanoparticle stabilizes its bilayer so that the targeting ligand can find its target receptor. Additionally, the nanoparticles are easy to load with drugs because they can be soaked in high concentrations of drugs. Dr. Brinker and his team compared the protocell technology to a liposome technology approved by the FDA on cancerous liver cells and found that the protocell was 10,000 times more efficient at killing cancer cells and left healthy liver cells more than 90 percent viable.

The protocell has been engineered to a size that allows it to float in the bloodstream from days to weeks looking for cancer cells while avoiding being absorbed by the liver and other cleansing organs. Particle sizes between 50-150 nanometers in diameter are in the ideal range for circulation and absorption into cancerous cells. Because only a few high-affinity binding ligands on the bilayer are necessary, due to the bilayer’s fluid-phase clustering ability, the protocell avoids the problems of nonspecific binding to other cells, blood and tissue in the body.

The fabrication and performance of the silica nanoparticle is an engineering marvel. It is materials science applied to medicine in a most beautiful way.

In 2010, a collaboration among UNM and Sandia, led by Dr. Brinker, and the UNM Cancer Center, led by Dr. Willman, coalesced into a $6 million funding partnership with the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer and the state of New Mexico. One NCI grant established a UNM Cancer Center/UNM/Sandia joint cancer nanotechnology program and another one created a new cancer nanotechnology training program to train a new generation of multidisciplinary engineers, life scientists and oncologists. The state funded a new lab supporting Dr. Brinker’s research into nano-bio materials and nanomedicine in space donated by the UNM School of Engineering at its Centennial Engineering Center. The development of the protocell technology is the amazing result of this multidisciplinary effort to develop new and innovative cancer diagnosis and treatment methods using nanotechnology.

The collaboration continues. Dr. Brinker and Dr. Willman and their research groups are working together to test the protocells efficacy, viability, and toxicity in animal studies and clinical trials, including using drugs identified by Dr. Willman as being effective against acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The protocell is being developed for treating other cancers as well.

Dr. Joseph Cecchi, Dean of the UNM School of Engineering, sums up the UNM community’s regard for Dr. Brinker’s contributions to science and innovation:

“Professor Brinker has been internationally recognized for his seminal and highly innovative contributions to nanostructured materials, including mesoporous thin films and nanoparticles. He has pioneered methods to synthesize these materials, and has exploited important real-world applications, such as semiconductor manufacturing, membranes for water purification and gas separations, and most recently, in his collaboration with Dr. Willman on nanoparticle platforms for targeted delivery of multicomponent drugs.

Professor Brinker’s research and commercialization activities are shining examples of what the School of Engineering strives for-to engage in cutting-edge research that leads to high-impact commercialization. Jeff’s work increases the visibility of the school in research and commercialization. In addition, and of equal importance, Jeff is a remarkable role model for other school faculty.”

The STC.UNM Board of Directors is honored to present the 2015 Innovation Fellow Award to Dr. Jeffrey Brinker.

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