Interview with Professor Waqar Ahmed, Head of the UCLAN Institute of Nanotechnology and Bioengineering

Introducing the Institute for Nanotechnology and Bioengineering

Can you tell me about the Institute? What it is for, what it’s aims are?

The Institute is called the Institute of Nanotechnology and Bioengineering, and it originally came about as a result of discussions with researchers working in the area of nanotechnology.  However, we wanted the Institute to have much broader themes, so included Bioengineering in its development also.  It began really when I did a feasibility study across the University, and there were quite a few people working on Nanotechnology-related projects.  Consequently, I collected a number of research papers from those colleagues working in related areas, and presented them to the Deputy Vice Chancellor, with a proposal that a formal collaboration be recognised between the Nanotechnology and Bioengineering.  This kind of work is more widespread than you might think, and is going on currently in several different Schools.  The School of Computing, Engineering and Physical Science (CEPS) for example features the work of Andrei Zvelindovsky in computational modelling of soft matter; I myself am working on surface coatings, and Ian Sherrington is working on NanoTribology.  Also, the Centre for Materials Science in School of Forensic Science & Investigative Sciences headed up by Gary Bond, where Tapas Sen is working on surface patterning techniques using nano-structured materials.  In addition to this, we have a very strong research group in Fire, Fire Retardancy and Nano Polymers, Nano Composite materials, involving both Anna Stec and Richard Hull who are interested in looking at toxic particles generated during a fire.  A lot of these are nano sized so Nano Fire has become a major group within the Institute.

So, modelling, nano fire, and then there is also work in the School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences and where  Abdulbary Elhissi and Tony D’Emanuelle are working on nanocarriers such as liposomes, and dendromers  to trap certain anti-cancer drugs, and anti-asthma drugs for targeted delivery to affected region.  So this is not the development of new drugs, but rather improving the delivery systems from the point of administration to the point at which the drug becomes active.  Thus drug delivery is a strong group within Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences headed by Abdelbary Elhissi, and has a lot of interaction with other members of the Institute.  We have a large the number of PhD students, some of whom are looking at nano carriers for cancer and asthma type applications – so this is another area of strength.

We are also working with Mike Holmes and David Phoenix on peptides, proteins and membranes – this forms another theme within the Institute.

In summary of the above, they are all areas that have the common theme of looking at modelling with nano materials and nano carrier systems – so the modelling group is the integral part of the Institute.

There is also subsidiary work going on, for example looking at blood flow modelling with one of the PhD students, Richard Wain – who is also looking at bone modelling.  I am also interested in looking at gait analysis for biometrics so I have a collaboration with Norway looking at this.  All of these areas can be brought together under the Bioengineering theme. Whilst we want to specialise within the Institute, we also want to be flexible enough to incorporate other groups and broaden our core applications.

The Institute is also both here, at UClan, and also, in China.  Two years ago the University made an investment in China and had a facility there, in a prime location. It was decided to allocate the space to the Institute, and allow them to develop research groupings related to the activities above, and also, increase their reputation in that region.  Thus, a call for proposals was launched at UCLan to work with some of the most prestigious institutions in China.  Not only will this be reputation enhancing, but it will give the Institute access to a lot of excellent Chinese facilities as well as those in Shenzen.  The aim is to work with the Universities that are in the top 100 Universities worldwide, based in China.  As a result, four projects have been funded in China working with such Universities.  An example of this is a project with  Fudan University, on nanoparticles for water purification.  A co-authored publications with them should it emerge, would be an excellent way in which to raise the profile of uclan and the Institute, and the work that it intends doing.

Sichuan University also, on drug delivery – so we are looking to develop some good projects for publication and reputational enhancement.  The long term aim is not to just become published, but to develop the projects with key institutions in China and grow our research collaboration with them.  Anna Stec and Richard Hull’s project in nano-toxicity is one of those that has been funded for delivery via the virtual institute.  We aim to build a testing facility, with a base of up to five researchers over there, and potentially working towards income generation using that facility.  The purpose of the facility will be to look at nano-composite polymers that have been developed, burning them, looking at their behaviour, testing, modelling and then looking, for example, at the effect on lungs.  It is important to understand the toxicity of nano-particle materials when they are burnt, and this facility will help with that.

There are also developments ongoing with jointly funded projects between UCLan and the Chinese institutes.  Colleagues from UCLan are in China finalising these, and working out such details as intellectual property rights, after which the projects may be signed off and launched.  We also hope that the Institute will be a central location for anyone who is wanting to collaborate with or work in China.  An example of that is that currently, Andrei Zvenlindovsky and Marco Pinna are working on a project there involving the modelling of soft matter, and it is hoped other staff will similarly work from there developing further links

Another key aim of the Institute, by virtue of funding projects, is to allow some of the younger, early career researchers to become involved and responsible for the project management, consequently developing their research leadership skills.  They will be supported by the established professors, but the immediate hands-on management will be their responsibility.  Part of their brief as well as publications will be to look at some IPR to generate some commercial income in the future.  Already, there is the possibility of securing a number of patents.

The Institute is a good example, already, of how the various pockets of research excellence across the University can collaborate.  Too frequently, we become immersed in the culture and practice of our own particular subject, our own interest.  Yet the Institute demonstrates the huge benefits and potential of interdisciplinary, cross-University research collaboration, and it would be good to see more of this developing.  We have recently started what we hope will become a series of research “dinners”, where the group can all meet outside of the University and discuss their research, and ways of developing new lines, new projects for enquiry.  Clearly, with the research competition that exists, particularly from the more established research universities such as the Russell group, it can feel like a daunting prospect being a lone researcher.  Together, however, as in our case – an Institute – the cross fertilisation of ideas; the shared learning; the ease of communication;  the growth – creates a dynamic environment to put our research at the forefront in certain areas.  That is our objective.  If we are successful, then we hope to move this model of working out to other countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Cypress and Indonesia where there are opportunities for us to expand the recruitment of high quality research students.

Professor Mike Holmes was talking to Professor Waqar Ahmed, Head of the Institute of Nanotechnology and Bioengineering. April 2011

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