12/12/17 – BOSTON, MA. – Tom Webster works in the lab on Dec. 12, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

As a chemical engineer and biomaterials expert, Thomas Webster is excited about nanoparticles—specifically, their potential to help treat disease and build better medical devices. As a professor and chair of the chemical engineering department at Northeastern, Webster is also focused on cultivating that same enthusiasm in his students.

“I see the excitement they get when they know something has been commercialized—that it’s not just some simple experiment you’ve done on the lab bench,” Webster said. He’s no stranger to commercialization, holding 32 provisional or full patents.

Webster, the inaugural Art Zafiropoulo Chair in Engineering, has pioneered the use of nanotechnology to improve medical devices. On Tuesday, he was named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

Nadine Aubry, dean of the College of Engineering and who herself was named an NAI Fellow in 2014, praised Webster for his path-breaking contributions to his field. “He is being recognized for the commercialization of several Food and Drug Administration-approved nanomedicine technologies, a testament to our strong commitment to translating innovative use-driven research from our labs to industry to real improvements in human health,” she said.

The 2017 NAI Fellows will be inducted in April. Election to the National Academy of Inventors is regarded as the highest professional distinction for academic inventors whose work has made contributions to tangibly impacting society. For Webster, it’s also a step toward further illuminating the emerging field of nanotechnology.

“Universities are the think-tank of society,” Webster said. “And we are leading the world in how we work with industry to translate research.” Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“I think the public still views nanotechnology as Star Trek, but in these cases where we’ve been able to use nanoparticles and get FDA approval, it’s not Star Trek anymore. It really is happening—we’re developing nanomaterials to improve human health,” Webster said.

Many of his patents describe novel nano-textured features on the surface of metals. These materials are then used to make medical devices, including a spinal implant. The nano coating on metals emulates the natural texture of bones and results in decreased infection, increased bone growth, and a reduction in scar tissue, Webster said.

Nanoparticles may also be used to treat disease. While certain pharmaceuticals have benefitted human health tremendously, they almost always come with side effects, he explained. “If we can get to the point of developing nanoparticles or implants to treat infection without drugs, hopefully we avoid all of those negative consequences,” Webster said. He added that nano applications may also reduce the need for antibiotics, the overuse of which has led to a looming health crisis of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“Universities are the think-tank of society,” Webster said. “And we are leading the world in how we work with industry to translate research.”