Bionanotech Guru: "I have an interdisciplinary brain," Samuel Stupp says. | Photograph by Tim Klein
In The Clean Room: Dorota Rozkiewicz, a materials scientist, is now working with biologists. | Photograph by Tim Klein
Samuel Stupp didn't trust his eyes.
The mice in the video flickering on his colleague's computer screen were moving their legs. Their back feet trailed behind them from time to time, but the fact that they were walking at all was astounding. Only a few weeks earlier, they'd been paralyzed from the waist down. Then Stupp's team at Northwestern University injected them with made-to-order molecules. Now the mice were trying to run around their cage. "I wasn't satisfied with the video, so I went to the lab to see it myself," remembers Stupp. "I was totally stunned."
Those mice were the first living glimpse of the future that Stupp is hoping to accelerate in his role as the director of the Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine at Northwestern. It's a future in which molecular self-assembly -- where researchers direct molecules to spontaneously combine into ordered structures -- will help the body heal itself. The prospect is straight out of The Six Million Dollar Man, but one better, since damaged parts will be replaced with actual human tissue instead of metal.
The intrepid Stupp, 61, first made his name as a materials scientist in the highly technical field of self-assembly, which has traditionally involved developing products for industrial use -- a computer chip, for example, or a protective coating. But back in the late '90s, when "regenerative medicine" still sounded like something from a sci-fi novel, he began to wonder if he might be able to apply the principles of molecular self-assembly to biology. "I have an interdisciplinary brain," Stupp says in a lilting in-between accent (born in Costa Rica, he speaks four languages fluently). "We had this idea that you could have a single platform that would cover an extremely broad range of conditions.
"It's always easier when you specialize in something, and there is a place for that," he continues. "But if you're trying to solve these kinds of problems, you cannot do it without interdisciplinary research." So he has built a lab in his own image, boasting biologists, physicists, chemists, and nanotechnologists, as well as materials scientists; he has also forged partnerships with neuroscientists and surgeons.
With his shiny bald pate and unflinching gaze, Stupp reminds me of actor-producer Bruce Willis, and when he says he'd want to make movies if he weren't a scientist, it makes sense. It's the directorial thrill of fitting the right puzzle pieces together, the synergy of assembling a diverse team and watching the sparks fly, that appeals to him. "You can motivate and inspire people to a higher level of creativity. I guide the process, give the 35,000-foot view."
The potential of that process is breathtaking. One day, the specialized molecules -- the "noodle gels" and macroscopic scaffolds -- that Stupp and his team are creating could repair injured spinal cords and treat brain disorders. Success would mean better lives for countless patients and enormous profits for Nanotope, the startup Stupp founded to commercialize the lab's discoveries. And even failed ideas can serendipitously turn into better ones. "When you see something interesting, you have an idea what might happen," Stupp says, "but you might discover something completely orthogonal that you didn't predict."
The Institute for Bionanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM) takes up the 11th floor of the towering Robert Lurie Medical Center at Northwestern's downtown Chicago campus, just steps from the shore of Lake Michigan. When I arrive, Stupp is running late, so Dorota Rozkiewicz, one of his junior colleagues, gives me a whirlwind lab tour, complete with superlatives about her boss. "He does great science, but many people are innovative," she tells me conspiratorially, between spiels about the state-of-the-art mass spectrometer and the clean room. "He also has this vision of where the work is going -- which subjects will be a great success in the future."
Rozkiewicz and I are still chatting in a conference room overlooking the lakeshore neighborhood when Stupp enters, so soundlessly that I don't realize he's there. He typically works on dozens of projects at any one time, but he doesn't seem stressed, or rushed. Instead, he fetches me a bottle of water and insists I tell him how I got into writing. It's only when he starts talking about what motivates him that I get a real sense of the magnitude, the ambition, of his self-imposed mission. "I don't like the idea of applied research -- develop a product and that's your focus," he says, looking straight at me without hesitation. "I want to leave behind a scientific legacy that can be used by other people in other fields."
Stupp didn't always have such a strong sense of his scientific calling. He grew up in Costa Rica, where his Eastern European parents had fled after Hitler rose to power, went north to attend UCLA, and then pursued a materials-science PhD at Northwestern. It seemed a practical choice, since he was hoping to go back to Costa Rica someday and he knew the country's economic situation was shaky.
Shovoda, E. (2011, February 07). How samuel stupp is rebuilding your body, one molecule at a time. Retrieved from http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/1GQni