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29 October 2009 Rice University

Funding Boosts Research into Nanoscience and Cancer

CTO investigators will focus on research projects targeting liver cancers, including secondaries.
CTO investigators will focus on research projects targeting liver cancers, including secondaries..
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A consortium that includes Rice University and partners in the Texas Medical Center has been awarded a major grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to establish a center to conduct innovative cancer research that draws upon the physical sciences.

The Center for Transport Oncophysics (CTO), which is based at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, will receive $2.4 million during its first year and could receive funds totaling $11.6 million over a five-year period.

The center is one of the first 12 physical sciences-oncology centers being created by the NCI in an effort to bring a new cadre of theoretical physicists, mathematicians, chemists and engineers to the study of cancer. The consortium also includes the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital.

Ultimately, through coordinated development and testing of novel approaches to studying cancer processes, the network of physical sciences-oncology centers is expected to generate new bodies of knowledge to identify and define critical aspects of physics, chemistry and engineering that operate at all levels in cancer processes.

"By bringing a fresh set of eyes to the study of cancer, these new centers have great potential to advance, and sometimes challenge, accepted theories about cancer and its supportive microenvironment," said NCI Director John Niederhuber. "Physical scientists think in terms of time, space, pressure, heat and evolution in ways that we hope will lead to new understandings of the multitude of forces that govern cancer. And with that understanding, we hope to develop new and innovative methods of arresting tumor growth and metastasis."

Rice's lead investigators in the new center are Lon Wilson, professor of chemistry, and Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and a researcher in Rice's new BioScience Research Collaborative.

"Cancerous cells and tissues interact with light differently than healthy tissues, and our lab works to develop minimally invasive technologies that recognize these differences," Richards-Kortum said. "Through the Center for Transport Oncophysics, we hope to develop and test new imaging technologies that better detect the optical signatures of cancer and help monitor the delivery of targeted agents to detect and treat cancers -- technologies that could ultimately help save lives with earlier diagnoses and more-effective therapy."

UT-Houston's Mauro Ferrari, the center's principal investigator, said, "The Center for Transport Oncophysics will focus on understanding how biological molecules and drugs are transported in cancer and healthy tissues. This will allow a new vision, a new prism through which to look at cancer and exploit its weaknesses to mount decisive attacks against its most damaging forms, such as metastatic and locally advanced disease."

In addition to conducting research traditionally focused on the biology of tumors, CTO researchers aim to investigate the differences in transport phenomena that characterize neoplastic disease and to establish methods to exploit these differences for advances in the diagnosis of and therapy for cancer.

CTO investigators will focus on research projects targeting liver cancers. The researchers believe primary liver cancer and cancer that spreads to the liver from tumors that originate in other parts of the body will help them learn more about the spread of tumors in general. Research projects include learning more about the biobarriers that keep cancer therapeutic agents from reaching tumors and investigating how to concentrate more agent at the site of a tumor.

Co-leading the consortium is Steven Curley, professor in M.D. Anderson's Department of Surgical Oncology. "This novel collaboration will help us sharpen a promising potential therapy that destroys tumors by using radio waves to heat up gold nanoparticles embedded inside them," Curley said.

Rice's Wilson is working with Curley on the innovative new approach. Wilson's group is helping prepare and characterize nanoparticles of various sizes and shapes to understand the heating rate as a function of structure. The particles are mainly of gold, silver and carbon and include fullerenes and nanotubes.

"Nanoparticle design will probably be a key feature in the future of any radio-frequency treatment of cancer in the clinic, and we are working hard to discover the best mix of particle size, shape and material," Wilson said.

The approach Curley and Wilson are using was invented by the late John Kanzius, an entrepreneur, former radio station owner and M.D. Anderson patient who knew that radio waves, which usually pass harmlessly through the body, will cook any metal in their path.

"The key to making this work is to so precisely target nanoparticles to the tumor that you destroy the tumor with radio waves while sparing other tissue," Curley said. "The CTO will address that central issue."

Other CTO senior project leaders and faculty investigators include Nicholas Peppas, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UT-Austin, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center researchers Isaiah Fidler, professor of the Department of Cancer Biology; Wadih Arap, professor of medicine and cancer biology; and Renata Pasqualini, professor of medicine and cancer biology. CTO members from the UT Health Science Center include Vittorio Cristini, professor of health informatics, and Paolo Decuzzi, associate professor of health informatics. Representing the Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital is Seok-Hyun "Andy" Yun, assistant professor of dermatology.

Ferrari said, "The CTO is a broadly interdisciplinary quest, which links world-famous clinicians and cancer biologists at M.D. Anderson with nanomedicine, biomathematics, imaging and drug-delivery experts at the UT Health Science Center at Houston, Rice, UT-Austin and Harvard. It is a great team that can achieve unprecedented results. It is a coronation of the concept of collaborations beyond institutional and disciplinary boundaries."

Source: Rice University /...

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