Institute name: Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN)

Institute director: Jackie Yi-Ru Ying 

31 Biopolis Way,
The Nanos,
Singapore 138669 

Jackie Ying (first from left) with her lab members, some of whom are former students of the IBN Youth Research Program.
Jackie Ying (first from left) with her lab members, some of whom are former students of the IBN Youth Research Program.

Making a difference

Nanotechnology has the potential to make a profound impact on biology and medicine. Better and more accurate diagnostics, more effective and targeted drugs, innovative medical devices, and revolutionary new treatments via stem cells or tissues engineering are all being enabled by nanotechnology.

At the forefront of these developments is the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Singapore, which undertakes interdisciplinary research at the intersection of science, engineering, and medicine. The Institute aims to generate new knowledge and innovative technologies by bringing together novel catalytic chemistry, biomaterials, nanofabricated devices, microfluidic systems, biology, and biomedical engineering.

Click here to explore more Lab Profiles.

Jackie Yi-Ru Ying is executive director of IBN and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Nano Today. She spoke to Materials Today about her research and running an international institute… 

How long have you been running the Institute?

I have been running the Institute for 13 years since it was founded in 2003. It has about 150 staff and 20 graduate students.

How many staff make-up your group?

There are around 25 people in my lab. About half are young scientists – a few of them are doing their PhDs and others are working as research assistants – and the rest are research staff.

What are the major themes of research in your lab?

We are a very diverse group. We have people working on diagnostics and biodevices, biomaterials and synthetic cell culture substrates, green chemistry and energy.

In the area of biomaterials and synthetic cell culture substrates, we are developing new materials to replace Matrigel (a proprietary gelatinous protein mixture extracted from Engelbreth-Holm-Swarm mouse sarcoma cells), which is very expensive, has immunogenic issues, and batch-to-batch variability. We have created polymeric nanoparticles as synthetic cell culture substrates that facilitate the growth of primary cells, cancer cells, and stem cells, as well as enable controlled stem cell differentiation. Secondly, we are trying to engineer the way cells are grown so we can make large quantities for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. We want to find additives and approaches for growing cells that are much less expensive and more scalable than the conventional methods.

In the area of diagnostics, we are very interested in the rapid detection of cancer using circulating tumor cells. We separate circulating tumor cells from normal cells by size in a way that is highly selective and keeps cells viable, and carry out single-cell analysis for diagnostics, prognostics, and drug screening.

We are also developing paper-based assays to detect infectious diseases like dengue, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases. This would make it possible to do these tests at home (like pregnancy tests) or in the clinic very quickly and inexpensively. We are interested in making these assays not only accessible but also non-invasive, so rather than using 100 microliters of blood we want to use 5 microliters of blood or even use saliva.

Why did you come to work in these areas?

We are working in these areas because we want to make a difference! We are creating materials and technologies that have the potential to be translated and commercialized so that it would benefit patients. We are focused on complex problems that are very challenging but important to tackle.

Throughout my career, I have worked in many different areas – not that I moved away from what I used to do but because I want to add new capabilities to our ‘nano’ tool box. When I move into a new field, I gain a lot of new knowledge and this can be combined with previous expertise to come up with new ideas and new approaches – and I am really excited by that!

At IBN, we try to bring together researchers and collaborators from different fields to work on difficult problems. To me, it is a wonderful situation to be in because we can learn all kinds of new things from one another and it is so much fun! I don’t want to be specialized in just one area. I like to be creative and I am fortunate that I can lead research at IBN in multidisciplinary directions.

What facilities and equipment does your lab have? And do you have a favorite?

We are fortunate to be very well equipped in our Institute, but I don’t really have a favorite piece of equipment.

Microscopic image of circulating tumor cells captured by IBN’s microsieve.
Microscopic image of circulating tumor cells captured by IBN’s microsieve.

What is the key to running a successful lab?

The most important thing is to hire the best people across all fields, especially since we are conducting interdisciplinary research. We have engineers – chemical, biological, mechanical and electrical – in my group, and also chemists, biologists, materials scientists and clinicians. The key is to attract really good people and challenge them to do creative and high-risk research. The projects we are trying to tackle cut across disciplines, requiring a lot of coordination and collaboration. Researchers must take the initiative and assume a leadership role. Some people love the technical work and others are willing to do project management. We try to keep them all happy while pushing them out of their comfort zone just a little!

What has been your highest impact/most influential work to date?

The glucose-sensitive nanoparticles work that won the Mustafa Prize is very gratifying because this technology is now in clinical trial after many years of research and preclinical studies. These nanoparticles can auto-regulate the release of insulin depending on the blood glucose levels. This drug delivery system bypasses the need for blood glucose monitoring with finger pricks, and allows insulin to be delivered orally or by nasal passage, instead of through injection. This technology could greatly benefit diabetic patients by helping to prevent hyperglycemic and hypoglycemic conditions, and the associated organ damage. I co-founded a company, SmartCells, to commercialize this novel nanomedicine, which was acquired by Merck in 2010 with potential aggregate payments of over USD 500 million.

But I would say that I am the most excited about the research we are doing now at IBN as we are working towards achieving synthetic cell culture substrates for growing cells inexpensively and in a controlled manner, multiplex detection for drug-resistant bacteria, and paper-based assays for point-of-care diagnostics. These technologies will really impact biomedicine and medical technology.

3D model of IBN’s paper-based assay for detection of infectious diseases such as dengue.
3D model of IBN’s paper-based assay for detection of infectious diseases such as dengue.

How do you balance running the Institute and your own research group?

Some aspects of running an Institute have to take priority during office hours, so I tend to work on my research papers at nights and on weekends. I am fortunate to work with a great team that runs corporate administration for the Institute smoothly so that researchers can focus on their work. I think if I was anywhere else I would have less time for my research, so I am very lucky!

How do you plan to develop the lab and Institute in the future?

We are always looking for exciting projects where we can provide a whole solution. Taking diagnostics as an example, we are thinking about the devices themselves, the methodology, and also the markers. We are developing not just antibodies, but also protein capture agents and unnatural base aptamers. We are looking at novel technology platforms that are commercially viable and unique.

In stem cell culture, we are finding ways of making large quantities of cells for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, as well as for drug testing and in vitro toxicology to substitute for animal testing. In addition, we want to be able to monitor the growth of these cells in large-scale bioreactors in real time (i.e. in minutes instead of hours) with new cell assays and sensor technologies.  

Ultimately, we would like to commercialize our technologies either through joint ventures or spin-off companies. In a sense, we are running the Institute more like an R&D enterprise or incubator. We are also establishing partnerships with clinicians because we can tap into their expertise, and work with them on important clinical problems. We want to ensure that the work taxpayers’ dollars support gets translated into real products that improve quality of life and create high value-added jobs in a knowledge-based economy. We want to be dynamic and responsive to the needs of society and make a difference.

We also devote a lot of efforts to the IBN Youth Research Program (YRP). Started in 2003, YRP has reached out to over 95,000 students – some as young as 15-years-old – through open houses, workshops, and seminars. Many become interested in doing research and we have over 2,300 students who have participated in research internships at IBN for at least one month full-time. In our labs, they learn to design and conduct experiments, analyze results, and present their findings. Many have won scholarships and gone on to further studies in science and engineering, and some have joined IBN as research staff. We are really proud of this program because the original goal was just to get young people excited about science – and it has now led to a new generation of scientific talent contributing to our research mission.

Key publications

  1. M. F. Leong, J. K. C. Toh, C. Du, K. Narayanan, H. F. Lu, T. C. Lim, A. C. A. Wan, and J. Y. Ying. Patterned Prevascularised Tissue Constructs by Assembly of Polyelectrolyte Hydrogel Fibres. Nature Communications (2013) 4, 2353  
  2. K. Fukushima, S. Liu, H. Wu, A. C. Engler, D. J. Coady, H. Maune, J. Pitera, A. Nelson, N. Wiradharma, S. Venkataraman, Y. Huang, W. Fan, J. Y. Ying, Y. Y. Yang, and J. L. Hedrick. Supramolecular High-Aspect Ratio Assemblies with Strong Antifungal Activity. Nature Communications (2013) 4 2861   
  3. Y. Zu, M.-H. Tan, B. Chowbay, S. C. Lee, H. Yap, M. T. M. Lee, L.-S. Lu, C.-P. Chang, and J. Y. Ying. Nanoprobe-Based Genetic Testing. Nano Today (2014) 9, 166-171
  4. J. E. Chung, S. Tan, S. J. Gao, N. Yongvongsoontorn, S. H. Kim, J. H. Lee, H. S. Choi, H. Yano, L. Zhuo, M. Kurisawa, and J. Y. Ying. Self-Assembled Micellar Nanocomplexes Comprising Green Tea Catechin Derivatives and Protein Drugs for Cancer Therapy. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) 9, 907-912
  5. X.-F. Yang, J.-H. Yang, K. Zaghib, M. L. Trudeau, and J. Y. Ying. Synthesis of Phase-Pure Li2MnSiO4@C Porous Nanoboxes for High-Capacity Li-Ion Battery Cathodes. Nano Energy (2015) 12, 305-313
  6. Y. Zhang, J. Bai, and J. Y. Ying. A Stacking Flow Immunoassay for the Detection of Dengue-Specific Immunoglobulins in Salivary Fluid. Lab on a Chip (2015) 15, 1465-1471