James C. Hone | Reprogramming Cells to Boost Immunity

James C. Hone
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering
This profile is included in the publication Excellentia, which features current research of Columbia Engineering faculty members.
Photo by Eileen Barroso

Nearly four decades after it first emerged, AIDS is still a deadly disease, killing more than 25 million people worldwide. More than 2.5 million people a year are newly infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), a virus that almost always leads to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

HIV is one of many diseases, like cancer and other viral and bacterial illnesses, that attacks the immune system, the body’s defense against infection and disease. Even for healthy people with a normal immune system, improving that system would make an individual healthier.

James Hone and his team want to take some key immune-system cells and genetically modify and immunize them outside of the body. A small percentage of people are born with certain genes that make them immune to HIV. Ideally, scientists would harvest their good HIV genes. Then they would modify other people’s genes to look the same way. They would grow a supply of these HIV-resistant genes and put them back into the human body. It’s a potential alternative to shots and traditional vaccinations.

Hone’s goal is to create the basic tools needed to engineer the immune system outside the body, and then to put it back inside the body.

Hone, whose work focuses on carbon nanotubes (CNTs), nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) and nanoscale structures with applications in cellular and molecular biology, solar and fuel cells, electronics, and sensors, teaches Carbon Nanotube Science and Technology to graduate students.

Hone is also working with IBM and Professors Ken Shepard and Tony Heinz—as well as two professors in the Department of Chemistry—on a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to develop field-effect transistors using graphene to determine if they are more efficient than III-V and silicon semiconductor technologies. Recent research by Hone and Columbia Engineering professor Jeffrey Kysar has shown that graphene is the strongest material ever measured and holds great promise for the development of nanoscale devices.

In addition, Hone is the co-investigator of a team led by researchers at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. The group won six million dollars over five years to look at how cells interact to form tissue in the kidneys.

“The specific thing we’re looking at is part of the kidney that acts as a filter,” said Hone. “You have cells that come together like interlocking fingers. The question is: What is it that gets cells to do that?”

Hone’s lab will build microscopic scaffolds—three-dimensional structures that will allow scientists to artificially control the environment for cells to begin to form these tissues.

B.S., Yale, 1990; Ph.D., University of California-Berkeley, 1998

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