UT nanoscientist gets $7M for breast cancer research

March 4, 2009: Mauro Ferrari, a nanomedicine scientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, has received a five-year, $7 million Innovator Award from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Breast Cancer Research Program to develop a targeted new delivery system for breast cancer drugs.

If this new approach proves successful, it could increase the efficiency of drug delivery by concentrating more drug at the site of a tumor. A more efficient drug delivery system has the potential to reduce side effects associated with these drugs.

In global competition, Ferrari was the sole recipient of the DoD Breast Cancer Innovator Award for his proposal submitted in 2008, making him the 17th recipient of this unique award in the last eight years. The Innovator Award is offered to support visionary individuals who have demonstrated creativity, innovative work and leadership in any field who will focus their talents on breast cancer.

“Dr. Ferrari is translating advances in nanotechnology into the prevention and treatment of human diseases; that is why we are here,” said Larry Kaiser, M.D., president of the UT Health Science Center at Houston. “His work in the area of cancer is particularly promising and Dr. Ferrari’s leadership in this collaborative approach is significant.”

Right now, when doctors inject a breast cancer drug, only a small percentage reaches malignant cells. The remaining drug circulates through blood vessels and can kill healthy, non-cancerous tissue. Side effects can include fatigue, hair loss and diarrhea.

With conventional chemotherapy, approximately one of every 100,000 drug molecules reaches its intended destination.

Ferrari’s proposed solution to this problem is to package these drugs in miniaturized carriers engineered to search out, recognize and release their payload at the site of the tumor. These nanocarriers are about one hundredth the size of a strand of hair and their contents are measured in billionths of a meter (nanometer).

Preliminary work has begun on the nanocarriers, which could be loaded with therapeutics, diagnostics, or a combination of both and designed to hone in on the blood vessels that support tumor growth. Once there, the biocompatible nanocarriers would degrade into harmless byproducts and release the medication.

Ferrari’s immediate goal is to significantly increase the concentration of a therapeutic drug in a breast cancer tumor in a pre-clinical study.

Getting the nanocarriers through the body’s vast circulatory system and to the site of a breast tumor is no easy task, Ferrari said. The nanocarriers must avoid being corrupted by enzymes, swallowed up by the body’s immune system and trapped inside blood vessels.

To avoid biological barriers, Ferrari uses a multi-stage delivery system. The first stage goes to the inner wall of a blood vessel near the diseased cells. As the nanocarrier degrades, it releases the second stage – tiny nanoparticles that penetrate the walls of the inner blood vessels and enter the diseased cells. The third stage is then released and it consists of either the medication to kill the tumor cells or the contrasting agents used for quality images, or both.

Ferrari’s nanocarriers can be customized to target different breast cancer presentations. They can be designed to release their payloads over a matter of hours or months. Their shapes can be specifically designed to increase the likelihood of reaching the targeted blood vessels that feed tumor cells.

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