Two School of Pharmacy Scientists Earn Ming Hsieh Institute Grants for Innovative Cancer Research

Ground-breaking cancer research taking place in School of Pharmacy laboratories is getting a boost thanks to two new grants from the Ming Hsieh Institute for Engineering Medicine for Cancer.

Assistant Professor J. Andrew McKay and Research Assistant Professor Jennica Zaro have each been awarded grants from the MHI in the amounts of $100,000 and $99,265, respectively, for their innovative cancer studies.

MacKay’s grant will support the project “Bispecific hybrid nanoworms for immunotherapy of B-cell lymphoma,” which he will be working on with co-investigators Alan Epstein, Peter Conti and Zibo Li of the Keck School of Medicine.

The grant will cover a 5-year collaboration on switchable nanoparticles that activate apoptic signaling pathways in cancer, building on the prior work of MacKay and Conti on diagnostic imaging of smart genetically engineered nanomedicines.

This study aims to develop temperature-responsive elastin-like peptide (ELP) nanoworms, and to develop and evaluate two specific nanoworms with anti-CD20 properties. (CD20 is found on the cell-surface of malignant B-cells, which are produced by some cancers and autoimmune diseases). MacKay will specifically bring his expertise on ELPs to the team.

“In the long term, the grant will help to expand on prior work to ELPs that could contribute momentum toward more widespread applications,” says MacKay. “In addition, it will be used for mouse model testing to bring the research closer to clinical translation, and the use of these nanoparticles in treating CD20-related disorders including cancer.”

Zaro’s grant will be used for the project “Optimization of pH-sensitive peptide nanoconstructs for use in targeting the mildly acidic tumor microenvironment,” on which she is collaborating with Peter Conti of the Keck School of Medicine.

The new award will serve as a renewal for a grant project started in 2012, with optimization as the new focus. The prior grant resulted in a National Institutes of Health R21 grant to evaluate the constructs for protein drug delivery, with the goal of submitting for an R01 grant in June of this year.

Zaro’s research is intended to help differentiate tumor cells from normal cells, which is one of biggest challenges in cancer diagnostics and therapeutics.

“The specific aims of this grant are to evaluate the in vivo toxicity of the nanoconstructs, particularly the liver and the kidney, and to quantitatively measure and improve in vivo targeting of nanoconstructs in tumor-bearing mice,” explains Zaro. “The results of this study will establish the feasibility of clinical applications, and could find broad applications in various drug delivery systems.”