Grant Funds New Imaging Tool to Aid in Cancer Treatment

Portrait of Dr.MackayTo more effectively treat cancer, there needs to be a way to visualize exactly how therapeutics interact with the tumor environment.

This is the latest undertaking of Assistant Professor J. Andrew MacKay, PhD, who has received a $75,000 grant from the Ming Hsieh Institute for Engineering Medicine for Cancer for the project, “Diagnostic Imaging of Smart Genetically Engineered Nanomedicines,” which he will research along with co-investigators Drs. Peter Conti and Zibo Li.

“Despite four decades of national engagement in the war on cancer, cancer caused 569,000 deaths in the United States last year,” said MacKay. “Solid tumors are treated using surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and more recently immunotherapy. Substantial effort has been expended to explore these modalities; however, more innovative ideas are needed to gain ground against cancer. Nanomedicines are an emerging source of innovation, with untapped potential to improve each of these modalities. ”

The MacKay group explores protein polymers as building blocks for cancer nanomedicines. Unlike many nanotechnologies, these protein polymers are biodegradable, are safe, can be seamlessly fused to therapeutic proteins, and can be programmed to assemble a range particles of defined size and shape .

“The immediate objective of this one-year proposal is to combine the self-assembly functionality of these peptides with Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to visualize the interaction of targeted nanoparticles within the tumor,” explains MacKay.

Using this innovative imaging technique, MacKay and his team hope to identify one or more candidate peptide nanoparticles that are specifically targeted to the unique proteolytic tumor microenvironment.

“Drug carriers that target tumors, while preventing off-target exposure, can significantly reduce the side effects of chemotherapy drugs,” he says. “What has been lacking are simple approaches to visualize the targeting of the tumor. Such an approach might help to optimize the choice of targeted therapy, prior to the administration of potentially harmful drugs.”

This project focuses particularly on patients with prostate, breast and ovarian cancers, but MacKay believes the findings have the potential for use with a variety of cancers.

“Our work may have implications for solid tumors of any origin that respond to chemotherapy,” he says.