Dr. Chad Mirkin
Professor of Chemistry, Director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology, and Principal Investigator at the Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, Northwestern University
To say that Dr. Chad Mirkin is a high achiever would be an understatement. But beyond his many awards, honors, and prizes; beyond the fact that he is among the most commonly cited chemists in the world or that he has more than 70 patents in the field of nanotechnology, Dr. Mirkin seems happiest when he's talking about the science itself, and the impact he foresees for nanotechnology in medicine.
"Nano is game-changing," he says, "when you realize that anything you're dealing with will have different unique properties when you shrink it down to nanoscale."
A colleague of his in the Chemistry Department at Northwestern University, Dr. Fraser Stoddart, agrees. "Nanotechnology will ultimately change the culture as much as the Internet," he says. And on Dr. Mirkin's role in this revolution, he adds, "The creative life is not so easy to live, the more so in science. And yet, Chad has managed to live his with such passion, curiosity, and practical wisdom that he has invented large swathes of nanotechnology single-handedly."
Dr. Mirkin prefers to think of it as being in the right place at the right time.
The earliest years of his life were spent traveling in Asia, living with his parents and three older brothers in Korea and Malaysia.
"My dad was looking for something I don't think he ever found," mused Dr. Mirkin. "His own father had come from Russia, and I think he wanted us kids to become independent, self-reliant people, atypical of the parental programming kids typically experience in a suburban cocoon in America."
When he was 7 years old, the family returned to the United States and eventually moved to southwestern Pennsylvania, where he went to a one-room school for fourth grade, was interested primarily in basketball throughout high school, and didn't think much about chemistry. In graduate school at Penn State everything changed, however, thanks to a mentor in the Chemistry Department, Dr. Greg Geoffrey. "He ignited a real curiosity about chemistry and gave me the creative license to do what I wanted to," says Dr. Mirkin.
Dr. Geoffrey sent his prize student to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work with Dr. Mark Wrighton, a friend and colleague from graduate school at Caltech. "Dr. Wrighton was the major force in the early interdisciplinary research," recalls Dr. Mirkin. "He paved the path for many people by getting the chemistry community to begin to think about the consequences of miniaturization," which was the term that preceded nanotechnology in the 1990s.
Dr. Mirkin accepted a job, formally as an inorganic chemist, in Northwestern University's Chemistry Department, one of the best in the country. It was here, in 1996, that his lab began a journey of discovery that led to the heart of a new field.
"I'm a great proponent of tinkering," explains Dr. Mirkin. A nanoparticle is anything between 1 and 100 nanometers. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or roughly the size of a water molecule. Colloidal metals such as gold were at that time being used to build nanostructures, using chemical approaches that were hard to control and impossible to reverse at that scale. His group also is adept at popularizing these ideas. (See a tutorial on the university Web site.)
"We wondered what might happen if we could exploit the unique recognition features of specific strands of DNA," recalls Dr. Mirkin. To use DNA as an assembler, he explains, "You just attach the material you want to assemble, such as gold spheres, to a DNA strand that's been cut where you want, and then let it find its own base pair partner." It gets a bit more complicated, but the process "actually lets us manipulate nanoscale building blocks into the structures with the physical and chemical properties we are after - theoretically any structure - and build materials from the bottom up."
They published a letter in Nature, which would eventually be cited by some 2,000 subsequent papers and launch Dr. Mirkin's meteoric career. "We didn't foresee at the time all of the biological applications," he explained, "but I did have a 'holy smokes' moment when I realized this could lead to a whole new arsenal of diagnostic systems." His group's latest paper, published earlier this year in Nature, illustrates how the original idea has matured into an important sub-industry of materials synthesis: diagnostic and therapeutic applications.
Dr. Mirkin is gratified his work has had a catalytic effect on biology and engineering in such a revolutionary way. But when he tells his story, he is always the lucky guy whose enthusiasm and joy of the hunt infects everyone around him.
In 2004, he harnessed that energy to establish the world's first federally funded institute for nanotechnology research and education at Northwestern, one of the factors that earned him the NIH Director's Pioneer Award in its first year. "That was significant," he recalls gratefully, explaining that the half-million dollar annual prize for 5 years helped his group establish a strong presence in the biomedical field, and enabled them to develop high-risk ideas that would have been difficult to get funded by more conventional mechanisms.
When his father was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, Dr. Mirkin saw it as "slash and burn, with heavy doses of poison to follow," until his father's death. While Dr. Mirkin was in Bethesda accepting the Pioneer Award 2004, he began to talk to NCI about diagnostic applications of his technology. His laboratory at Northwestern is one of eight Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence funded under NCI's Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer.
He has high hopes that nanotechnologies like his own FDA-approved Verigene System - which uses nanoparticle probes to detect nucleic acid targets and proteins - will be instrumental in studying and, eventually, treating and curing cancer.
"We are now close to nanoparticle diagnostic systems that can be applied away from a centralized lab at the point of care, with rapid results," he says. "These are the things we should be talking about in nanotechnology - pragmatic applications we can accomplish in a real time frame. The real nanotech pioneers aren't those with just grand ideas, but rather those who make them happen."