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International Journal of Nanomedicine

Interview: Dr Webster

Listen to the interview with the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Nanomedicine, Dr Thomas Webster, by clicking the Play button (the full interview is 24 minutes, 7 seconds). A transcript of the interview is also provided below.

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Q: Can you tell me a bit about yourself? For example, what’s your degree in and where/when did you study?
Dr Webster: Sure. I am in the Division of Engineering and the Department of Orthopedics. I’m currently an associate professor and my degrees are in engineering and specifically in biomedical engineering. I got my PhD from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute which is in upstate New York here in the United States. And I obtained that degree in the year 2000.

Q: What led you to decide on that particular line of study?
Dr Webster: That is a great question. I was in chemical engineering for my bachelor’s degree. And chemical engineering is a part of engineering that combines, of course, chemistry with math and science, primarily to conduct industrial-scale research. So a lot of chemical engineers will go into the paper industry or the oil industry or even the pharmaceutical industry.

And when I was getting that degree, my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, I happened to do an undergraduate research project. And it was fascinating. It was a project that dealt with developing a portable kidney dialysis machine. So you might know that many patients who have to undergo kidney dialysis have to be connected via catheters to a very large device and oftentimes it’s inconvenient to go into the clinic to be hooked up to this device.

Many people who need kidney dialysis have to go in to the clinic two or three times a week. So our project, when I was an undergraduate, was to try to develop something for kidney dialysis that you could wear on your belt. So this would have been a significant improvement, much more convenient for patients to utilize, they wouldn’t have to go into the clinics, they could simply be at home or at work and have a portable kidney dialysis machine.

So, essentially, this started getting me interested in biomedical engineering which is really a division of engineering that looks more precisely at medical concerns. So, in essence, this whole kidney dialysis project is a perfect example of a biomedical engineering program or a biomedical engineering problem that I tried as an undergraduate to come up with solutions. And that led me to go to graduate school in biomedical engineering in which I, instead of focusing on dialysis machines, I actually started focusing on implants and improving the lifetime of implants using nanotechnology.

So, a great practical example is how do you improve the lifetime of a hip implant? And that was my PhD thesis project: to try to figure out how do we construct implants today that can last longer in patients: that can bond better to bone, quicker to bone, longer to bone so that you don’t have some of the limited lifetimes of orthopedic implants that we often see today.

Q: I think you’ve answered my next question. I was going to ask you what your main research interests are now. Was there anything else you wanted to add to that one?
Dr Webster: Sure. I obtained my PhD and since I moved to Brown University… actually, I was even at Purdue University which is in the State of Indiana in the United States from 2000-2005 and then I moved here to Brown University. In that time period, since 2000, we started looking not only at improving orthopedic implants using nanotechnology, we also have started looking at improving other implants: so, for example, vascular implants.

There are many people who develop plaque build-up in their arteries and need either an artificial artery or need what’s called a stent – an accordion-looking device that props open the blood vessel to allow blood to flow through an area where it was maybe once partially blocked due to a plaque.

So we have started using nanotechnology for vascular stents. We have also started looking at nervous system diseases like stroke. So if somebody has an accident or some kind of neurological disorder that results in a lack of blood flow to the brain, obviously they could then develop stroke. So we’re looking at nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials to return motor function to those patients. Even people who might be paralyzed: we are trying to utilize nanomaterials to return motor function to the paralyzed limb or the limb that is no longer under motor function.

We also have moved into cartilage. So cartilage is a challenging tissue to develop strategies to heal. And the reason is because - there’s a couple of reasons – one is you don’t have nerves in cartilage so many people when they feel pain in their joints, like the knee or the elbow or the shoulder, they actually may have bone rubbing against bone. So no cartilage left. You have complete bone rubbing against bone. And since you have nerves in bone, you feel that as pain.

So we’re trying to develop, also using nanotechnology, injectable materials that can go into cartilage and can re-grow that cartilage.

So our interests now are much more widespread than just bone. Although we still have a lot of work to do to improve orthopedic implants, we’ve now moved into things like vascular, the nervous system, cartilage, as well as some other tissues to see how widespread nanotechnology is to improve these traditional tissue engineering materials.

Q: How well do you think the current education system and educators serve students today?
Dr Webster: It serves students pretty well. I think one of the best things that we do in our education system is provide students with research opportunities. I think - and even in my own personal experience - sitting in a classroom is certainly one way to learn. [It’s] very traditional to learn via the chalk-board or overheads or slides that are discussed and introduced in the classroom.

However, I personally, and I know this is true with some other people as well, am much more motivated to learn when we are in a laboratory. So if we have something to play with – and maybe this is the engineering part of me that likes to play with things with my hands and build structures and actually be much more active during the learning process.

So, I think, in parts of our education system that we can introduce laboratories, we can introduce experiments, we can tell students, or ask students, to design something, to build something. I think that really, really enhances the learning process. And I think in this field of medicine it’s so critical: because medicine really is a hands-on type of field. You are building things to improve imaging, you are building things to improve the way that you can diagnose a disease. Or you are building things that can treat those diseases like implants or nano-particles.

So I think as long as we continue to insert actual laboratories, actual experiments, into the classroom I think, the more we can motivate students for a particular research area.

Q: How can specialists in the field help patients better understand their work? For example, do you support the idea that academic/scholarly papers should all carry a “plain text explanation” of main findings/conclusions?
Dr Webster: Definitely. I think the more that scholarly journals can have brief, perhaps, synopses of a scientific article written in general terms, I think the better we’re servicing our field. In general, the more things that we can do to get the message out to the general public concerning what we’re doing, the better we serve our field.

I say this not only from the point of view of trying to get as many people excited about science and medicine as possible, but also some of the best ideas, in my opinion, some of the best ideas to improve technology come from everybody. If you can describe your research to the general public in a way that gets them excited you often hear many great ideas that you didn’t think of because you’re kind of in the trenches, so to speak.

You’re in the middle of doing all of this research and you get caught up in some of the details. But by explaining your results to the general public and having them suggest ideas that you just don’t think of because you are involved in the details, I think, helps the entire field in general.

Q: Who, in your opinion, is doing the most interesting/exciting work in your field of medicine at the moment?
Dr Webster: In the nanotechnology/nanomedicine field, there are many, many exciting examples from really all over the world of what’s going on. I quickly talked about implants and how nanotechnology can improve implants. But there’s also equally as exciting, I think, research going into fighting cancer.

So in our journal, for example, we recently published a paper from Jennifer West’s research group at Rice University, which is in Houston, Texas, and they’ve pioneered the use of tiny nanoparticles that can be injected into tumors, can heat up and can kill, selectively, cancer cells. So they leave the healthy cells alone and they only kill cancer cells.

So this is a brand, or a part, of nano-medicine that is employing nanoparticles to treat another specific disease like cancer that has really gotten the field excited about a new exciting way to treat cancer:
not having to rely on chemotherapeutic drugs which would be injected and would kill healthy as well as cancer cells but relying on technologies that are focused at those cancer cells only and killing some of those cancer cells only.

I think there’s also another example of this field: some of the highly interesting and exiting work going on in sensors. So another part of this field that I think we are about to see a lot more burgeoning kind of research in are placing sensors on implants in the body.

So instead of relying on having to go in to the doctor’s office to have an x-ray or to have an MRI scan or some other imaging mode, to actually start using sensors that you can put in your body that can determine in real time what’s happening to your implant or what’s happening to that nanoparticle that’s trying to kill the tumor is an extremely exciting area of research

And there’s a scientist, Rashid Bashir, who is looking at some of these sensors that can be implanted and can give you real-time information in your body how it’s responding to a particular treatment.

Q: If we turn back to you particularly, right now, who’s had the biggest influence on your career? And what did they do that was influential on you? 
Dr Webster: There’s a couple of people. I think we can always look back at our lives and think of those turning moments.

I remember early on when I was this chemical engineering student actually at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania in the United States, a teacher I had, Allan Russell is his name. He was one of the first instructors to open my eyes to medicine and to the field of bioengineering. And he did it in such a creative way.

In the classroom, he actually gave us a series of case studies. And these were ethical dilemmas that he presented to us. He presented this ethical scenario that we’re working for a company and we see the data, we’re the scientists, we’re conducting these experiments. And we know the data. We know when certain molecules can work to fight disease and when they don’t work.

And the ethical dilemma was your boss is actually asking you to twist the data, to not report the data directly but to emphasize certain parts of the data. And certainly, the ethical dilemma is most people, I would hope, would feel pretty uncomfortable doing this.

So that the idea was what do you do? How do you ethically deal with this as an up-and-coming biomedical engineer?

And we looked at this problem in so many different ways but it really turned me on, I think, to the ethical dilemmas that people face as well as the challenges and excitement that are present in medicine today. That we’re actually developing these new molecules that can have profound consequences, both positive and negative, and discussion or thinking about how to take advantage of the positives and trying to scientifically figure out a way around the negatives was just a powerful example to me.

And it’s something I still use in the classroom today is presenting these ethical challenges to get people excited about the opportunities that medicine has, but not forgetting about the negatives and learning, as every scientist should or every researcher should, to be very, very honest about the results and let them speak for themselves. Don’t try to twist them in a certain way but let these results speak for themselves.

Q: You mentioned there were a couple of people who influenced you. Who else did?
Dr Webster: Right, so the other ones, of course, probably most graduate students would say this: their advisors.

I was fortunate to have two advisors. I had one, Rena Bizios, who was an expert in biology. She knew medicine. She knew cells. She knew how tissues grew.

And my other advisor was Richard Siegel. And these, at the time, were both faculty members at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where I got my PhD. He was an expert in nanotechnology, in fact was one of the first people to start a company that made, on a commercial scale, nanomaterials. They were used in sunscreens at the time.

So it was a perfect blend of two researchers that were extremely passionate about their work. And, aside from the science that I learnt from them and the medicine I learnt from them, which was outstanding, the biggest thing I learnt from them was just to be passionate about whatever you do.

And I remember, I’ll never forget the first time that I met my advisor Rena Bizios. She was not my advisor at that time. It was going to happen a couple of months from when I first met her. But I went into her office and she immediately came from behind her desk. And you know how some academic offices can be a little bit stuffy, a little bit formal. And as a new student in graduate school you feel be a little bit intimidated. But she stood up from her desk and came right over and gave me this huge hug and said, "welcome to Rensselaer".

And I think at that moment I realized how much energy she puts into everything she does. And it’s that kind of…. Some days it’s hard, right? To put that much energy into everything you do. But I’ll never forget from that day on just how passionate she was about educating students and about the science, about the medicine, that she was exploring that could be the next breakthrough technology for a number of different diseases.

Q: Outside your own specialty, what’s the area of medicine that you’d most like to know about?
Dr Webster: Probably cancer. Although that is sort of in my field, we’re not directly doing work related to cancer.

I think the advances that are going on in cancer today are just amazing. And they are happening so quickly. How to treat cancer. The new molecules that can be developed from the chemical standpoint. What chemistries should be used.

What delivery mechanisms should be used. As an example, the people who are working on lung cancer and trying to utilize asthma devices: so devices that you could take a breath and incorporate some of those anti-cancer drugs into your lungs. These are significant avenues that are being pursued specifically geared towards decreasing cancer.

Maybe that’s the next field that I’ll go into. Really, more cancer and finding how to treat different cancers because each cancer is a little bit different so it requires a little bit of a different strategy

Q: Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions that you’d like to try to address in the future?
Dr Webster: Having just talked about cancer, that’s probably one of them. Trying to do more research into the cancer world.

I think another semi-unfulfilled ambition, maybe it’s partly becoming fulfilled, is there’s a big interest in academic medicine today, to get your technologies out of the laboratory and into the commercial sector.

I think that one of the big problems that the field has faced so far is that within each university there are really thousands of great technologies. But due to no fault of the faculty member or the students who are doing the research, they just don’t make it to a real company or a real product.

That’s an area that we need to think about as a society as a whole. How do we better get technologies out of our universities into companies’ hands?

It’s tricky. There are certainly university interests. Everybody has the right to publish a result. So you should never feel that your freedom to talk about research is at all limited. At the same time, the company viewpoint, and understandably so, is we have to keep some things secret because we’re selling a product and we don’t want another company to come along and take our ideas away from us.

So I think there are challenges between this idea of academic freedom and yet driving a commercial product.

But, especially in terms of medicine, you’re not really going to help patients unless you can have real commercial products translate from your research bench. Although I’ve been involved in a couple of start-up companies, they are very new, very initial efforts.

I think that one unfulfilled promise is really to see something that I’ve been doing in the lab make it the whole way to being a medical product, either by me directly involved in that process or somebody else who might do that.

Q: What would you say are the benefits of “Open Access” journals such as the International Journal of Nanomedicine?
Dr Webster: The benefits of those journals tie in very nicely with this academic freedom concept that I was just talking about. In the traditional journals where you have hard copies, you need to have a library subscribe to that journal or you need to have an individual sign up for an annual fee for that journal.

I think that limits academic freedom. I think that limits the ability to get research out into the public eye.

The Open Access format which definitely, I’m convinced, is the future… electronic journals are going to be the future of everything that we do in science and medicine.

And I think the idea that they are open to anybody to download a paper, to read that paper, to discuss that paper no matter where they are as long as they have a computer to do that, then that supports our freedom to publish information and our freedom to report results on studies that we have.

Q: What’s your vision for the International Journal of Nanomedicine?
Dr Webster: It’s keeping some of that strong - you almost hate to say tradition because it’s so new, this Open Access format is so new. But to keep that format going and it is picking up steam. You can see competitors to Dove Press actually starting to use this Open Access format.

To keep that going and get the message out that once you publish with our journal your paper can be read anywhere.

That’s a very strong message. It’s a strong message to a scientist to say the impact of your paper can be quite high. It’s a strong message to the public because it says we’re not just tailoring this journal to a university library that has the funds to pay for a subscription. But we’re tailoring it to everybody to read.

That’s the real vision for the journal. To keep on going along the Open Access format and be more inclusive of other groups to read the journal, to submit articles to the journal and cast a wider net for this entire field of nanomedicine.

Dr Thomas Webster was interviewed by Ruth Le Pla on behalf of Dove Medical Press. Ruth has setup interviews with some of our other Editors-in-Chief, so keep a look out for these, they should provide some compelling reading.

If there is someone in a specialist field you would like to read an interview about let us know and we will do our best to arrange it.