The award brings together a multi-disciplinary team of renowned experts in laboratory research, translational investigation and clinical medicine led by Michael J. Sailor, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). The team also includes Erkki Ruoslahti of Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and Clark C. Chen of the UCSD School of Medicine.
Ballistics injuries that penetrate the skull have amounted to 18 percent of battlefield wounds sustained by men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the most recent estimate from the Joint Theater Trauma Registry, a compilation of data collected during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“A major contributor to the mortality associated with a penetrating brain injury is the elevated risk of intracranial infection,” says Chen, a neurosurgeon with the UCSD Health System, noting that projectiles drive contaminated foreign materials into neural tissue.
Under normal conditions, the brain is protected from infection by a physiological system called the blood-brain barrier. “Unfortunately, those same natural defense mechanisms make it difficult to get antibiotics to the brain once an infection has taken hold,” says Chen, who is also an associate professor and vice chair of research in the Division of Neurosurgery at the UCSD School of Medicine.
DARPA hopes to meet these challenges with nanotechnology. The agency awarded this grant under its In Vivo Nanoplatforms for Therapeutics program to construct nanoparticles that can find and treat infections and other damage associated with traumatic brain injuries.
“Our approach is focused on porous nanoparticles that contain highly effective therapeutics on the inside and targeting molecules on the outside,” says Sailor, the UCSD materials chemist who leads the team. “When injected into the blood stream, we have found that these silicon-based particles can target certain tissues very effectively.”
Several types of nanoparticles have already been approved for clinical use in patients, but none for treatment of trauma or diseases in the brain. This is due in part to the inability of nanoparticle formulations to cross the blood-brain barrier and reach their intended targets.
Treating brain infections is becoming more difficult as drug-resistant strains of viruses and bacteria have emerged. Because drug-resistant strains mutate and evolve rapidly, researchers must constantly adjust their approach to treatment.
In an attempt to hit this moving target, the team is making their systems modular, so they can be reconfigured “on the fly” with the latest therapeutic advances.
Nanocomplexes that contain genetic material known as short interfering RNA, or siRNA, developed by Bhatia’s research group at MIT, will be key to this aspect of the team’s approach.
“The function of this type of RNA is that it specifically interferes with processes in a diseased cell. The advantage of RNA therapies are that they can be quickly and easily modified when a new disease target emerges,” says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.
But effective delivery of siRNA-based therapeutics in the body has proven to be a challenge because the negative charge and chemical structure of naked siRNA makes it very unstable in the body and it has difficulty crossing into diseased cells. To solve these problems, Bhatia has developed nanoparticles that form a protective coating around siRNA.
“The nanocomplexes we are developing shield the negative charge of RNA and protect it from nucleases that would normally destroy it. Adding Erkki’s tissue homing and cell-penetrating peptides allows the nanocomplex to transport deep into tissue and enter the diseased cells,” she says.
Bhatia has previously used the cell-penetrating nanocomplex to deliver siRNA to a tumor cell and shut down its protein-producing machinery. Although her group’s effort has focused on cancer, the team is now going after two other hard-to-treat cell types: drug-resistant bacteria and inflammatory cells in the brain.