UCLA chemistry professor elected to Britain’s prestigious Royal Society

James Gimzewski, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, was today elected a 2009 fellow of Britain’s prestigious Royal Society in recognition of his scientific excellence.

Fellowship in the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, is granted to those who have made substantial contributions to research and advancing understanding in their field of science, medicine or engineering. It is one of the highest honors a scientist can receive.

The Royal Society’s citation reads: “Jim Gimzewski has pioneered the use of the scanning tunnelling microscope to image, characterise and manipulate molecules on surfaces. His insights into the fundamental properties of single molecules, and his visionary experimental methods have made fundamental changes in the way chemistry at the single-molecules level is perceived. His enthusiastic and innovative way in which he communicates his science has been universally recognized.”

“It’s a great honor,” said Gimzewski, who grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, and is a British citizen. “The Royal Society was established in the mid-1600s.”

Gimzewski applies nanotechnology to real-life problems in areas such as nanomedicine, where his work may lead to more effective treatments for cancer and other diseases and, he hopes, more personalized medical treatment.

His research overlaps chemistry, nanotechnology, physics, biology, medicine, engineering and art. He is the scientific director of UCLA’s Art | Science Center, which has a gallery at the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) and a lab at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center at UCLA, and is the director of the CNSI’s Nano and Pico Characterization Laboratory.

“It is only now that nanotechnology has come to the point where it can start to change the world,” Gimzewski said. “We may be able to get to the point where we can dramatically reduce medical costs through nanotechnology. We may also be able to produce cheap, mass-produced solar cells and fuel-cell technology, to name just a few possible applications. Can pharmaceuticals be delivered right to a tumor without killing off surrounding healthy cells? Nanomedicine holds great promise.”

In December 2007, Gimzewski and colleagues at UCLA published research in the journal Nature Nanotechnology that used state-of-the-science nanotechnology to demonstrate that metastatic cancer cells are softer than healthy cells. The study represented one of the first times researchers have been able to take living cells from human cancer patients and use nanotechnology to determine which were cancerous.

For cancer to spread throughout the body, diseased cells must enter the bloodstream and maneuver through tight anatomical spaces; they must be more flexible, or softer, than normal cells. Gimzewski and his colleagues used one of the most valuable tools in the nanotechnology arsenal, an atomic force microscope (AFM), to measure the relative softeness of cells in fluid collected from the chest cavities of patients with lung, breast and pancreatic cancers — cells which are less than half the diameter of a human hair.

The AFM uses a minute, sharp tip on a spring to push against a cell’s surface and determine its degree of softness. It then assigns a “softness” value based on the resistance encountered. Gimzewski and his co-authors, including Jianyu Rao, a researcher at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center and an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, found that the metastatic cancer cells were all extremely soft and easily distinguishable from normal, healthy cells, despite similarities in appearance.

Gimzewski and Rao are continuing to conduct research together and are investigating the possibility of increasing the stiffness of cancer cells so they can’t travel as easily through the body and harm healthy cells. In one study, they are examining whether green tea extract affects the stiffness of cells.

Gimzewski is also studying the stiffness of leukemia cells and is working with UCLA biological chemistry professor Geraldine Weinmaster on the mechanics of interactions between cells.

“We’re expanding our collaborations in the medical school and molecular biology to look at different types of cancer and cell-cell interaction through nanomechanics,” he said. “Nanomedicine is an adventure in uncharted territory. We’re working with real experts.”

Gimzewski is beginning to study objects inside cells, on the nanoscale, including mysterious
barrel-shaped capsules known as vaults, which are found in the cytoplasm of all mammalian cells and whose function is poorly understood, and exosomes, which play a role in cancer of the mouth.

In other research, Gimzewski and colleagues have produced high-energy beams of neutrons, photons, ions and electrons. He and UCLA physics professor Seth Putterman demonstrated that they could generate nuclear fusion in a pocket-sized device.

Before joining UCLA’s faculty in 2001, Gimzewski worked on nanotechnology and biotechnology at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory from 1983 to 2001.

“Creativity is becoming more important than knowledge,” Gimzewski said. “Knowledge is distributed on the Internet, where anyone can find it.”

Gimzewski has been working closely with Victoria Vesna, a UCLA professor of design and media arts, to communicate nanoscience through art installations in museums worldwide and through innovative courses.

“Nanotechnology requires new approaches,” Gimzewski said. “You need both lobes of the brain functioning. Artists can handle complexity and the unknown. I want to bring together art and science — both halves of the brain.”

He said his most exciting research is always his current project.

The Royal Society has been at the forefront of research since its founding in 1660. Each year, the society applies a rigorous peer-review process to elect a maximum of 44 new fellows who are citizens of the United Kingdom, other Commonwealth countries or Ireland, and several foreign members. Fellowship is a lifetime honor.

More than 20 Nobel laureates currently number among the society’s more than 1,400 fellows and foreign members. Fellows have included Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Francis Crick and James Watson.

For more information about the Royal Society and a complete list of 2009 fellows, visit www.royalsociety.org.

For more about Gimzewski, visit www.chem.ucla.edu/dept/Faculty/gimzewski.

UCLA is California’s largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university’s 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 323 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Four alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

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