For work toward a safer approach to treating cancer, electrical engineering Ph.D. student Inanc Ortac from the University of California, San Diego has won first prize in the graduate student category at the 2012 Collegiate Inventors Competition.
Ortac’s winning entry, entitled “Nano-Wiffle-Balls for Cancer Therapy” offers a new approach for delivering cancer drugs just to the areas where the drugs are needed. This kind of targeted drug delivery minimizes collateral damage to non-cancerous cells.
“With our nano-wiffle-ball technology, we expect that the lethal side effects to chemotherapy can be greatly reduced, the efficacy of the therapy can be increased, and the quality of life of patients can be improved,” said Ortac.
Preclinical trials for a number of cancer types including colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and metastatic breast cancer are under way and clinical studies will follow, according to Ortac. He plans to bring the technology to market through DevaCell Inc, a company he co-founded with his advisor, UC San Diego professor Sadik Esener and Jacobs School of Engineering alumnus Gokce Yayla (Ph.D. 1996 in Electrical Engineering).
Esener is affiliated with the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and NanoEngineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering as well as the UCSD Moores Cancer Center.
The proposed nano-wiffle-ball approach for the treatment of solid tumors and metastatic cancers would involve multiple steps. First, the nano-wiffle-balls, which are nano-scale capsules made of silica, are filled with foreign enzymes. The nano-wiffle-balls encapsulate the enzymes and effectively hide them from the body’s immune system.
Trillions of nano-wiffle balls loaded with foreign enzymes would then travel through the blood stream and accumulate at the cancer sites. This accumulation at cancer sites occurs, in large part, due to enhanced permeability and retention effects caused by the incomplete, and therefore leaky, nature of the vasculature around tumor tissue.
Next, a doctor would administer a non-toxic, inactive drug precursor, called a “prodrug” systemically through the body. When the prodrug comes into contact with the nano-wiffle balls, the prodrug enters these nanocapsules and reacts with the enzyme cargo. These reactions activate the prodrug, turning it into an active cancer-fighting drug. In this way, the drugs are delivered just to the cancer sites where the nano-wiffle-balls accumulate.
One of the unique, and potentially valuable, aspects of the nano-wiffle-ball approach is that the enzymes that are encapsulated within these nano-balls are of foreign origin, from bacteria for example. The prodrug is designed to react only with these foreign enzymes, eliminating the potential for the unwanted activation of the drug elsewhere in the body.
Using foreign enzymes, however, means that they are likely to provoke an immune system response aimed at neutralizing and removing the enzymes from the body. To avoid this immune response, the researchers encapsulate the foreign enzymes within the nano-wiffle balls in order to hide the enzymes.
Nano-wiffle-balls technology can also be used to deplete tumor nutrients, which will make them particularly useful for blood cancers. In addition, nano-wiffle-balls can be modified with molecular agents to improve the targeting and retention at the tumor site. With applications specific modifications, this technology can potentially be applied to 90% of cancerous tumors.
In addition, nano-wiffle-balls offer low toxicity, high loading capacity, and significant control in their physical parameters. The researchers’ approach also enables easy functionalization of the nano-wiffle-balls without interfering with the activity of the cargo.
The nano-wiffle ball approach could potentially be applied to other diseases and to biosensing and industrial applications, Ortac said, who noted that the nano-wiffle-balls are approximately 1/1000th of the thickness of a human hair.
During his time at the Jacobs School of Engineering, Ortac has been no stranger to the process of technology commercialization.
“The priceless guidance I have received from the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center about the process of translating technologies from lab to market will follow me throughout my career,” said Ortac.
In 2011, Ortac, Ahmet Erten (Ph.D. 2010 in Electrical Engineering) and Corbin Clawson (Ph.D. 2011 in Bioengineering), won second place in the UCSD Entrepreneurship Challenge for their work on a hand-held device that will quickly screen a blood sample for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a hard-to-kill infection.