Henry Hess | Building Tiny, Muscle-Like Engines

Henry Hess
Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering
This profile is included in the publication Excellentia, which features current research of Columbia Engineering faculty members.
Photo by Eileen Barroso

Artificial limbs are being used with increasing frequency to replace missing body parts, such as arms and legs. Typically, patients need them because of infection, circulatory disease, congenital defects, accidents, cancer, or, increasingly, warrelated injuries. Right now, nearly four million Americans have a prosthetic device.

Henry Hess and his collaborators are working with molecules to figure out how to build artificial muscles that are as good as the real thing. In a system that’s far more efficient than anything manmade, the human body takes glucose and uses the sugar to power muscles that enable people to move and talk. But if Hess and his team can figure out how to duplicate Mother Nature, they can make better prostheses, and ultimately, better car engines, too. Imagine a car engine that worked like a big, artificial muscle.

The team is also working on novel “smart dust” biosensors, which may be used to detect cancer earlier or detect pathogens like anthrax in the environment. In these devices, the artificial muscles play the role of miniature pumps that collect and transport the molecules of interest.

Hess, who was raised in East Germany, joined the Columbia Engineering faculty in 2009 and teaches Tissue Engineering. The course introduces students to the field of biomaterials, and in particular to the many factors important in the selection, design, and development of biomaterials for clinical applications.

He directs Columbia’s Hess Laboratory on Nanobiotechnology – Synthetic Biology. His lab focuses on the engineering applications of nanoscale motors. Such microscopic motors with the ability to create forces and drive active movement with high efficiency enable new approaches to a wide range of nanotechnologies, including biosensing, drug delivery, molecular assembly, and active materials.

“We have successfully utilized motor proteins in synthetic environments for the controlled transport of nanoscale cargo,” said Hess, “and continue to advance the design of such hybrid bionanodevices and materials. “The hybrid approach has the advantage that techniques, materials, and devices unique to either biology or technology can be merged into a revolutionary combination. Applications particularly suited to hybrid systems are found in medicine and biotechnology, where biocompatibility is critical and the environmental conditions are favorable for biological nanomachines.”

His other research interests include engineering at the molecular scale, in particular the design of active nanosystems incorporating biomolecular motors, the study of active self-assembly, and the investigation of protein-resistant polymer coatings.

B.S., Technical University Clausthal (Germany), 1993; M.Sc., Technical University Berlin, 1996; Ph.D., Free University Berlin, 1999

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