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Pharmacy Professor Awarded $1.3 Million Grant to Fight Cancer with Novel Nanoparticles

Research to focus on metastatic breast cancer.

by University of Rhode Island
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CANCER FIGHTER: Wei Lu, assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences in URI’s College of Pharmacy, in his lab conducting research on novel nanoparticles to battle metastatic breast cancer. Photo credit: Joe Giblin, URIKINGSTON, R.I.—January 27, 2014 – The National Institutes of Health have awarded a University of Rhode Island pharmacy professor a $1.3 million grant to further study a new class of inorganic nanoparticles that target primary cancer, and help control the disease’s spread (metastases) and recurrence.

Wei Lu, assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences in the College of Pharmacy, has discovered in his preliminary research that hollow copper sulfide nanoparticles are effective in delivering chemotherapy and heat through a laser that can burn the tumor.

The Kingston resident will be using the four-year NIH grant to further his laboratory study with a focus on breast cancer, the second most frequently diagnosed malignancy in women worldwide.

“We are developing a novel cancer therapeutic technology that has several innovative features: biodegradability, multimodality and simplicity,” said Lu, who is teaming with Pharmacy Professor Bingfang Yan, a specialist in genetic and environmental factors that combine to regulate the expression of genes involved in drug response and the cellular switches related to tumor formation.

“One nanoparticle can carry hundreds or even thousands of drug molecules to a target like a tumor cell,” Lu said.

Nanoparticles are submicroscopic particles whose size is measured in nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter. Nanoparticles are only 1/1,000 the width of a single human hair.

Lu wants to enhance photothermal ablation therapy, a process that uses lasers in cancer treatment. Initially, high levels of laser treatments were needed to burn and subsequently kill the tumor. About 10 years ago, inorganic nanoparticles were introduced to this process in animal tests, which provided better absorption of the laser light, generated greater heat, and in turn lowered the laser doses.

But there are several problems with current nanoparticle-aided photothermal ablation therapy. For example, the current delivery technology does not allow the nanoparticles to be distributed evenly in a tumor, thus the heat generated by the particles is not evenly distributed. As a result, malignancy can continue in the site receiving sub-lethal doses of heat.

In addition, some types of nanoparticles, such as gold particles, are difficult for the body to eliminate.

“As is the case with surgical removal of a tumor, getting all of the cancer is critical, ” Lu said. “The new nanoparticles provide a three-way punch to the tumor: a more widespread ability in a tumor to distribute heat and burn the tumor, a more efficient and comprehensive way to deliver chemotherapy, and better use of heat to activate the chemotherapeutic agents and immunotherapeutic agents. The new nanotechnology offers promise in tumor eradication.

“Such nanoparticles are introduced intravenously and are absorbed into a tumor.” Lu said. “This study is using near-infrared laser light instead of ultraviolet light or visible light because it penetrates tumor tissue better and has much lower side effects. In addition, these particles are readily degradable in the body, minimizing potential organ toxicity.”

Lu, who came to the University in 2010, said he could not have competed for the NIH award if it weren’t for the support of the Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, a $45 million initiative funded by NIH and headed by URI to increase research capacity among biomedical faculty in Rhode Island.

“The program supported my research for three years, which allowed me to develop my preliminary findings,” Lu said. “I am very grateful for this support, without which I could not have gotten this major federal funding.”

Lu’s research colleague Yan, chair of the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, said it’s rare in the nation for a junior faculty member with just three years on the job to be awarded such a major grant through the regular R01 mechanism by NIH. Yan said the two bring different things to this project. “Professor Lu works on the therapy and I am the toxicologist, focusing on how the nanoparticles are eliminated from the body.”

Lu and Yan will be working with post-doctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates from the bachelor of science in pharmaceutical sciences program.