Milan Mrksich is considered a world leader in the realm of engineering the interface between cells and surfaces. As a postdoctoral fellow, he helped transform an inexpensive process for making computer microchips into a method to control the shape, position, and function of living cells. This method, based on adhesive molecules immobilized on substrates within microarrays, was used to gain insight into how mammalian cells decide to grow, differentiate, move, or die.
Moving with ease between chemistry, molecular biology, biophysics, nanotechnology, materials science, and cell biology, Mrksich focuses much attention on how cell surfaces are engineered. These surfaces support the cell and regulate its migration and adhesion to other cells. Understanding how this extracellular matrix works can lead to ideas for drugs and methods of engineering artificial tissues.
Mrksich has a fundamental question of cell biology in his sights: how do cells control the assembly of focal adhesions that mediate cell adhesion to extracellular matrix? This is a critical question because focal adhesions are where cells sense and integrate the mechanical and chemical signals responsible for controlling their growth and function. He has genetically engineered mimics of specific cellular adhesion proteins and shown how they assemble into focal adhesions. The work led to development of small molecule inhibitors that disrupt the adhesion process.
Mrksich used artificial cell surfaces to develop biochips—arrays of biological molecules that can be used to assay for specific activities. One success of biochip screening is identification of compounds that inhibit two toxins of anthrax.
Mrksich also uses these artificial surfaces to improve culturing of cells for scientific study of cell adhesion, because cultured cells require surfaces to grow.