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MIT chosen for national role fighting cancer

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The National Cancer Institute announced Monday it has chosen MIT and Harvard University to share one of seven national, multi-institutional hubs it is establishing to rapidly advance the application of nanotechnologies to cancer research.

The MIT-Harvard Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence will be funded with a five-year, $20 million grant organized and administered by MIT's Center for Cancer Research (CCR). Principal Investigators are MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer and Professor Ralph Weissleder, M.D., of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

"This is a great opportunity for MIT to pursue interdisciplinary science at the intersection of cancer research and nanotechnology, and hopefully to do some real good for patients," said Langer.

According to the NCI, the Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, or CCNEs, were created to provide new solutions to the cancer problem. Nanotechnology, the development and engineering of devices so small that they are measured on a molecular scale, has demonstrated promising results in cancer research and treatment.

The MIT-Harvard CCNE brings together a team of more than a dozen experts across a variety of disciplines - chemistry, engineering, biology and medicine. At MIT they include Langer, Institute Professor Phillip Sharp (biology), and Professors Tyler Jacks (biology, head of the CCR), Michael Cima (materials science), Angela Belcher (bioengineering), David Housman (Biology), Moungi Bawendi (chemistry) and Sangeeta Bhatia (Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology).

The investigators will pursue five innovative cancer research projects spanning the entire spectrum of nanotechnology applications, from fabricating nanoparticles for targeted delivery of therapeutic drugs and imaging agents to implanting tiny sensors for early detection and cancer monitoring. In addition, other MIT researchers will be involved in smaller pilot projects.

One of the large projects, led by Langer and his former postdoctoral fellow Omid Farokhzad, now a Harvard Medical School professor, focuses on using nanoparticles to transport time-release anti-cancer drugs directly to prostate cancer cells. "One of the problems with cancer therapy is that it goes everywhere in the body," often causing toxic side effects, Langer said.

"We proposed making nanoparticles with units attached to them - homing devices, if you will - that would target only cancer cells."

The first challenge of this project is to isolate these "homing devices," RNA molecules called aptamers, that bind specifically to prostate-tumor antigens and will be taken up by the cancer cells. The second challenge is to construct a safe, biodegradable nanoparticle that can carry a drug on the inside and bind with an aptamer on the outside.

Another project, led by Sharp, takes a biological approach to the treatment of cancer. In this effort, researchers will use nanomaterials to deliver short interfering RNAs (siRNAs) to cancer-causing genes associated with lethal cancers, like glioblastoma, with ineffective treatment options. SiRNAs are tiny sequences of RNA that, when introduced into a cell, slice up the gene from which they originated, thereby silencing the expression of the gene.

Though potentially powerful tools in the anti-cancer arsenal, siRNAs are difficult to deliver to tumor cells; hence, this project explores two complementary approaches. One is to attach siRNAs and peptides (fragments of proteins) to the surface of nanoparticles. The intention is that the peptides, like heat-seeking missiles, will zero in on tumor cells, binding with them and dumping the nanoparticle's payload of siRNAs. Because siRNAs may be vulnerable to destructive enzymes, another approach is to incorporate them directly into the nanoparticle itself, protecting the siRNAs with miniature "armor-plating."

"SiRNA technology is very new and this has never been tried before," Sharp said. "The benefit is that if we can master the technology of delivery, then we can probably treat many different forms of cancer many different ways."

How these and other projects will turn out is anyone's guess. But, as Jacks concludes, "The best way MIT can deploy its assets in the war against cancer is to bring together people like Bob Langer and Phil Sharp on the same problem."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 5, 2005 (download PDF).

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