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Gabriel P. López, Ph.D. — 2016 STC.UNM Innovation Fellow

2016 Innovation Fellow coverWe honor Dr. Gabriel P. López as the 2016 STC. UNM Innovation Fellow for his achievements as a prolific and creative inventor.

His inventions, micro- and nano-biomaterials and devices, are created at micro- and nanometer dimensions.  To help you imagine the scale of his work, the space between the title and the subtitle above is approximately one centimeter.   If one centimeter equals 10 millimeters and one millimeter equals 1,000 micrometers—imagine fitting 10,000 micrometers of something into this space.  And if a nanometer equals one thousandth of a micrometer—well, you get the idea. At this scale is the invisible world of atoms, molecules and cells—the molecular machinery of biology that keep living organisms at every level functioning.

It is indeed a celebration of the imagination!

Dr. López’ main research focus over the course of his career has been basically in the area of biomaterials science, which pulls from the disciplines of medicine, biology, chemistry, tissue engineering and materials science to create new materials.  These are generally materials developed for medical applications or applications in which there is some biological context or interaction with a living system.  Biomaterials can be composed of natural substances or synthesized substances, such as polymers, that can be part of or a whole living structure or device that performs or replaces a natural function. Heart value implants, urinary catheters and engineered particles as drug carriers are good examples.

“One of the things that is really important to understand,” says Dr.  López, “is how do you control the interactions between cells and a synthetic material?  It might be, for example, an implant material such as a urinary catheter; you want something that is not going to inflame the tissue and not going to become colonized by bacteria that end up causing an infection. It turns out that this is a really huge problem. So, by understanding very precisely how it is that you can prevent these microorganisms from colonizing these materials, you can in principle impact the well-being of a lot of people.”

A native New Mexican, Dr. López received a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Colorado in 1985 and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1991 from the University of Washington as a Kaiser Aluminum Company graduate fellow under the mentorship of Professor Buddy D. Ratner. From 1991-1993, he was an NIH and Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellow under the mentorship of Professor George M. Whitesides in the Department of Chemistry at Harvard University. He was appointed assistant professor of chemical engineering and chemistry at the University of New Mexico in 1993, promoted to associate professor in 1999, and promoted to the rank of professor in 2004.  In 2005, he became the founding director of UNM’s Center for Biomedical Engineering (currently a member) and the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Programs, and served for five years on the STC.UNM Board of Directors as the main campus faculty member.

In 2010, he was appointed a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering while remaining as an adjunct professor in UNM’s Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering.  At Duke, Dr.  López was the founding  director of  the NSF’s Research Triangle  Materials Research Science  and Engineering Center (RT-MRSEC), which is focused on the programmable  self-assembly of soft matter and currently includes approximately 60 researchers  at  Duke,  North Carolina State, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC Central University.

In 2015, Dr. López was appointed as the University of New Mexico’s Vice President for Research where he is also a professor in the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering and a member of  the STC.UNM Board  of Directors.

Graduate Research and Innovation

As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard in 1991, Dr. López studied the foundations underlying nanotechnology, which would lay the groundwork for sensor, diagnostic, and drug-delivery technologies he and his research group would develop at the University of New Mexico.   Working in Dr. George Whitesides’ research group, he and his co-investigators studied self-assembled monolayers (SAMs)   for   their potential in controlling interactions between proteins, cells, and synthetic surfaces. The monolayers are good models for some aspects of biological membranes.  Dr. López and his co-inventors developed techniques that can control the dimensions of interactions down to the micron scale. Using these techniques, cells could be directed to form a particular shape and to stick to a particular place on a substrate, which meant that their function could be controlled as well, overcoming the drawbacks to conventional cell culturing when it came to observing functional changes in cells— an important step in the search for new drugs and genetic engineering technologies.

Other studies produced techniques for a patterning process that allowed researchers to maintain cells in specific orientations in a large culture for long periods of time and revealed how certain biomolecules interact with SAMs.

UNM Technologies—A Multidisciplinary Approach

At UNM, Dr. López continued his SAMs research and discoveries but also focused his study on the molecular machinery of proteins, the cell’s regulators, to discover what materials and devices could be made from understanding their function.  Over the years, his research groups, using smart polymers by exploiting the behavior of elastin-like polypeptides (ELPs), have created environmentally friendly, anti-fouling films, and hybrid biomimetic membranes that can separate different sized molecules at the micro- and nanoscale, particularly applicable for microfluidic devices.

Dr. López and his collaborators also studied phospholipid molecules that make up the  semi-permeable bilayer membrane surrounding a cell. The membrane is important because it supports the cell’s internal structure, keeps its chemical interactions within, and moves other substances in and out of the cell. The researchers created lipid-coated silica microspheres to use as biochemical sensors for screening and diagnostic tests, and ultimately incorporated them into microfluidic devices. The microspheres are stronger and stabler than the naturally occurring phospholipid membrane and can successfully support or encapsulate other molecules, drugs, and fluorescent dyes that are used to  detect the presence of other biological substances. In another process to stabilize liposomes, composite, fluid-filled sacs used for drug delivery, the collaborators developed a soft petrification process which builds a silica matrix on the surface of the liposome that preserves the structure and function of the lipid layers.

A $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and gap funding from STC’s gap fund program helped Dr. López and his team to create and develop the technologies that produced a miniaturized prototype immunosensor device that detected multiple infectious agents simultaneously—using one sample for multiple tests.

Immunosensor devices are a type of biosensor that detect the presence of specific antibodies or antigens for the diagnosis of diseases. (Antigens are the unique molecules of bacteria and viruses that trigger an immune response in the form of antibodies, proteins that bind with the antigens to destroy the infected cell.)  Basically, the devices are composed of three parts: sensitive biological material (such as antibodies) to detect the presence of infection in the sample (such as blood or other fluids); a transducer, a device that converts, in this case a chemical reaction, into an electrical signal; and a signal processor (microprocessor) for recording and displaying the results.   The beauty of biosensor devices is that they combine the many analysis and processing steps of a laboratory in a portable device that can test for and diagnose disease right where the patient is in real time.  It solves the problem of not having access to a central lab with highly trained and specialized staff, and it’s faster and cheaper.

Teams of researchers from the Departments of Chemical & Biological Engineering and Chemistry, the School of Medicine, and the Center  for High Technology Materials worked on  different parts of  the  device according to expertise, from the creation of the tiny channels (the width of two human hairs), and microscopic  glass beads coated with binding proteins for the screening process,  to the fluidic and detection systems. The technologies converged into a handheld prototype device that could detect and identify up to eight infectious agents.

The problems he has focused on solving in his research require a collaborative approach, bringing together experts in many fields in order to create biomedical engineering technologies. The Center for Biomedical Engineering, established by Dr. López in 2005 in order to connect engineers with medical researchers to create new medical devices and treatment methods, now has the New Mexico Cancer Nanoscience and Microsystems Training Center, established in 2010, to expand research partnerships and increase discovery of nanotechnologies for cancer treatment.

Dr. López’ many other technologies have contributed to innovations in flow cytometers; particle separation for drug discovery, rare cell detection and environmental sensing; and antimicrobial biofilms and coatings for better ways to disinfect surgical instruments, medical devices and filtration systems.

Dr. Andrew Shreve, Director of UNM’s Center for Chemical & Biological Engineering, sums up Dr. López’ contributions to the field of biomedical engineering thus:

“Dr. López has made contributions to biomedical engineering in a number of different areas. He has demonstrated how surface properties can be used to control cellular properties, developed particle-based biosensing and analysis strategies, developed new types of particles for flow cytometry applications, demonstrated how to use nano-fabricated materials for separating biological macromolecules,  and demonstrated strategies for controlling encapsulation and stabilization of biological structures. In every one of these areas, and in many others not listed, Dr. López and his collaborators have taken an area of research, explored the basic fundamental scientific underpinnings, and then moved that basic understanding into technologically relevant applications, for example, in biological sensing or separation techniques. Dr. López has truly demonstrated how to harness the power of modern materials science and engineering to provide technological solutions to important biomedical problems.”

A Mentor to Many—Fostering Research and Discovery

A great innovator innovates everywhere. This is particularly true of Dr. López who has developed innovative research programs for faculty and students.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his work as the founding director of UNM’s Center for Biomedical Engineering (CBME) and lead PI in securing a National Science Foundation $2.5 million grant for developing an educational program called the Partnership for Research and Education in Biomaterials (PREM).

The CBME was established in 2005 to bring  together the  diverse group  of  scientists involved in  biomedical engineering research.  It was also a place where the innovative PREM program could take root to train future biomedical engineers.  The overarching goals of the center are to improve healthcare and outcomes for New Mexicans and to contribute to the growth of the biotechnology industry in the state by creating biomedical technologies for commercial development and new company formation.

The PREM program was designed to interest students from elementary school through graduate-level education in biomaterials science and engineering.  It was also designed to reach out to under-represented groups in science, materials science and technology and inspire them to pursue careers in these fields.  Another goal of the program was to encourage students pursuing degrees in the areas to achieve at the highest levels through the creation of graduate-level degrees.  The program was a unique partnership among UNM, Albuquerque Public Schools and Harvard University and included a visiting scholar exchange program, research collaborations, professional career development resources and opportunities, and educational community outreach programs for elementary, middle, and high school students that included bilingual presentations for students, teacher workshops, mentoring, and research internships.

Today, the Center  for  Biomedical Engineering is an established and successful research program generating new knowledge and incubating new technologies.

Dr. López’ research discoveries, outstanding inventions, and program leadership are all the more remarkable considering the many hats an academic researcher and administrator must wear.   We are excited at the possibilities to come for UNM’s research mission, its faculty and its students as he leads our efforts to achieve even greater levels of outstanding research and innovation.

The STC.UNM Board of Directors is honored to present the 2016 STC.UNM Innovation Fellow Award to Dr. Gabriel P. López.