June 12, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 19

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    Profile: Milan Mrksich

    Milan Mrksich, Assistant Professor in Chemistry, is exploring fascinating new areas of research at the interfaces of chemistry, biology and materials science. An organic chemist, Mrksich is studying how biological cells adhere to surfaces -- a phenomenon that is integral to how cells grow, differentiate and divide; how they break up in the metastasis of a cancerous tumor; and how implant devices like heart valves and pacemakers are accepted or rejected in the body.

    Mrksich is new to the University this year, but already he has eight graduate students working on several different projects in his fourth-floor laboratory -- one that is uniquely designed for organic synthesis, electrochemistry and biological tissue culture. And because he grew up in the southwestern suburb of Justice, Ill., being at Chicago is like coming home again.

    Mrksich studied at the University of Illinois, where he received his B.S. in chemistry in 1989, and at Caltech, where he received his Ph.D. in 1994. After a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, Mrksich joined the Chicago faculty in spring 1996.

    He received a three-year Searle Scholar Award and a five-year Camille and Henry Dreyfus New Faculty Award, both in 1996. He is a member of the DARPA Defense Sciences Research Council and is on the editorial board of Langmuir. You had offers from several top universities. Why did you choose to come to Chicago? My work combines synthetic chemistry with materials science to study important problems in cell biology. Chicago is unique in providing an environment where groups like mine can incorporate very different experimental approaches, and that is because the physical sciences, the biological sciences and the hospital are all located nearby one another, and because it's really easy just to walk across the street and talk to other people. So the barriers to interacting with other groups are very low here.

    With the proposed new joint research institute in the biological and physical sciences, that barrier should drop even lower. Definitely. Another reason I came to Chicago is because this university looks for people and groups to move in new directions. Biological and physical sciences traditionally have very different cultures. I believe the new research institute is going to allow us to bring those two cultures together to solve the most challenging problems. The institute represents the big desire to have groups that are defining the new frontiers in science, and to do that properly takes a real commitment by the University, which it is making.

    How do these fields come together in your work? Well, the way we study cell adhesion is by looking at cells on a glass slide using a microscope. Usually, the slide is coated with a commercial preparation that you can buy off the shelf and then look at how the cells adhere and move across that surface. But the beauty of being a synthetic chemist is that we can make any substrate that we want -- we can exquisitely tailor the properties of the material by making subtle changes to the molecular structure.

    What about your students -- do they come from chemistry or biology? Almost all of my graduate students are from the chemistry department. I was concerned about how they would learn all the techniques that are required to work in this area, but it turns out that they learn very quickly. These are their formative years!

    The students are excited to see a project move from the stage of developing new chemistries to using those methods to control the behavior of mammalian cells. Students typically perform many different tasks in the course of their project, including the synthesis of new molecules, preparation and characterization of organic monolayers and studies of the behavior of cells attached to these monolayers. They will be in a strong position to define the frontiers of science a decade from now.

    Sounds like you enjoy working with students. I do. They are continuously learning new things, and after all, that's what science is all about -- and actually, that's the same reason my interests are moving into the biological realm. It's a new area for me where I can keep learning.

    What other directions are you exploring? Half of my research group is taking the monolayer chemistry in a different direction -- we're designing functional interfaces. That is, we're using these same organic monolayers to create interfaces whose properties can be switched using electrochemistry.

    How will this be used? Cells are usually grown on petri dishes before they are used in experiments. Then they are released from the culture medium to do further studies. The current method uses an enzyme that breaks the links between the cell and substrate, but this also damages the proteins that are important for cell function. Our electroactive substrates will have the principal advantage that cells can be released rapidly and non-destructively.

    Looks like you've got enough to keep you busy for awhile. Chemistry is not confined to studying those molecules that are readily available because we can always make new ones. That means we'll never run out of problems, because we can always create new systems.

    -- Diana Steele