Ovarian cancer is the fourth-leading cause of death among women. The available medical data estimates 13,850 will die of the disease in 2010. Pancreatic cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer death, with 36,800 expected fatalities this year. Early detection strategy for either disease is not available yet. Ovarian cancer patients have just a 29 percent survival rate after five years, and pancreatic patients are lower, at 5 percent as of now.
The NCI (National Cancer Institute) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in America has been funding projects for developing advanced treatment for these very critical diseases.
The NCI awarded 34 grants in the latest phase of the Alliance Initiative. The University of Utah joins such organizations as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Emory University.
A $16-million, five-year grant by the National Cancer Institute's nanomedicine initiative blends the expertise of five research institutions to focus an array of innovative nanotechnologies for improvement in the health of patients with ovarian or pancreatic cancers. The Texas Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, led by four Houston institutions has received NCI funding.
Building on advances made in high-speed, high-sensitivity magnetic sensing, a team of University of Utah researchers has also been awarded a five-year, $2.3 million federal grant to create a nanotechnology-based platform for the early detection of pancreatic cancer by the NCI.
While the Texas Centre for cancer or TCCN will focus on nanoparticles on a biochemical level, in cancer treatment, the University of Utah researchers will focus on magnetic resonance based functioning of nanoparticles.
With improvement in their understanding of the biology of cancer in recent years, scientists have learned how natural barriers inside the body prohibit traditional drugs from effectively treating cancer. This has led to use of nanotechnology to build tiny particles at the atomic scale that can safely deliver drugs to tumour cells. The nanoparticles require more tuning before any clinical trials, though.
Dr. Anil Sood, Professor in MD Anderson's departments of Gynecologic Oncology and Cancer Biology, one of four principal investigators with the new center, anticipates launching clinical trials of several of the therapies for ovarian and pancreatic cancer within two years.
"We believe our team of internationally recognized scientists will push the boundaries of cancer therapy and diagnosis, starting with two cancers that are among the hardest to detect and the most difficult to treat," said Anil Sood. Team members have developed nanoparticles made from a variety of substances that hold potential for medical use, including gold, silicon, tiny balls of fat called nanoliposomes and chitosan, which is derived from crustacean shells.
Since all of the TCCN's nanotechnologies are delivery platforms, the impact of the center's research is likely to reach beyond cancer treatment.
TNCC's research is divided into four projects, with scientists from multiple institutions using a variety of nanoparticles in each project.
Multiple-stage delivery systems that can efficiently insert drugs or small interfering RNA in ovarian tumours and the blood vessels that support them. This project also includes development of a sensitive imaging approach and proteomic nanochips to monitor response to treatment.
Highly developed therapeutic nanoparticles designed specifically to hit the blood vessels that support ovarian cancer tumours using the novel thioaptamer and peptide targeting agents. Two nanotechnologies will be deployed one that delivers siRNA to silence target genes and the other that will permit the burning of cancer cell carrying, blood vessels with near-infrared laser light.
Nanoparticles with capabilities to penetrate or destroy connective tissues abundant in pancreatic cancer tumours and block destruction of cancerous cells will be developed. Nanoparticles will be designed for early detection as well as preventive agents to reverse conditions that encourage cancerous cell formation.
Development of multifunctional nanoassemblies is also on the agenda. The modus operandi will be to first identify the blood vessels that feed the neuroendocrine pancreatic tumours and then, delivering smaller nanoparticles to either treat or image the malignancy.
TCCN also includes four core programs that support the researchers working in the fields of, biomathematics, nanoengineering and administration.
The team of the Utah university researchers will further develop an existing prototype to design a fully-functional magnetic sensor and associated analytical tools. Their goal is to produce an instrument that will require just a drop of blood or some other body fluid to identify and quantify hundreds of protein biomarkers that may indicate the presence of cancer in a matter of seconds.
By aligning a specific magnetic nanoparticles with an antibody that in turn binds to a specific protein and then reading the nanoparticle/ protein combinations on a chip array, the device will profile different proteins simultaneously, a process called multiplexing. "What we expect to find are specific markers or groups of markers that may indicate the onset of pancreatic cancer before the patient even begins to feel ill," Porter said. He is a researcher the departments of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Pathology and is working on this project.
Directing the research team are USTAR Marc Porter and Sean J. Mulvihill Chair of the Department of Surgery at the university's School of Medicine and senior director of clinical affairs at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Co-director of the Nano Institute of Utah, Porter has worked on the sensor for several years.
"We announced a magnetic assay device in October 2008. Over the last two years, we've done a lot of the basic research, and demonstrated the merits of the concept." Porter said.
The project targets pancreatic cancer as the first step in platform development and performance validation. In the long run, Porter envisions the scanner as an element of quick, inexpensive, ubiquitous healthcare delivery. Eventually, these scanners could be manufactured at a cost low enough to place them in local clinics, hospitals, and even retail pharmacies. With automation, operating them would not require much training, and the results could be delivered faster to the patient's physician, Porter said.
Porter further added, "There's a lot of statistical analysis that goes into solving this problem. The grant will help us run scans on a very large sample base to spot the correlations."