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Using Nanotechnology To Beat Cancer Side Effects

Texas Christian University Chemistry Professor Eric Simanek
Texas Christian University Chemistry Professor Eric Simanek

By Bill Zeeble, KERA News

Dallas, TX – A diagnosis of cancer can be terrifying. For some, so are the fears from treatment side-effects. KERA's Bill Zeeble reports on nanotechnology research at TCU aimed at new drug delivery methods that eliminate side effects.

Valerie Oxford has been a Social Worker at Fort Worth's Moncrief Cancer Institute for 18 years. She offers hope to patients coping with cancer's traumas and treatments. Three years ago, Oxford was herself diagnosed with breast cancer.

Oxford: I can be honest with you. I did not want chemo. I was devastated when I found out I had to have chemo. And I've been in the field. I knew there was medication that would help me.

Oxford was terrified of side effects. She underwent a lumpectomy, received radiation, and chemotherapy, then lost her hair, experienced nausea and vertigo. The side effects were bad.

Oxford: When you live by yourself, dragging yourself across the floor trying to get to the bathroom and not real sure you were going to make it. That's pretty bad.

The sights and sounds of  Doctor Simanek's nanotechnology lab. Some of the devices used in this video include: A mass spectrometer, a rotary evaporator unit, and a fume hood.

Texas Christian University Chemistry Professor Eric Simanek is researching ways to end those side effects.

Simanek: Our solution rests on size.

Simanek is one of several TCU Chemists pioneering nanotechnology drug delivery techniques. Nano essentially means tiny. For example, it takes a microscope to see a cell. Shrink that cell a thousand times, now you're on the nanometer scale.

The work happens in Simanek's TCU lab. He says it's really no different than other chemistry labs, except here, there's a quarter million dollar mass spectrometer, used to weigh particles and identify molecules.

Simanek attaches the small chemotherapy drug to a larger, lab-made, nano molecule. Why? Because while chemo effectively attacks the tumor, the drug molecule itself is so small it also invades and poisons healthy cells. That causes side effects. If the cancer drug were attached to a bigger molecule, it could not enter or hurt healthy cells. So in theory, only the tumor would be attacked with no side effects.

Simanek: We would like to make cancer therapy as similar as popping a pill for high cholesterol or administering insulin injections for diabetes. We would want to be able to take the toxicity and the side effects completely out of the treatment.

In the cancer study, funded in part by a $2 million National Institutes of Health grant, the small cancer drug was attached to one of Simanek's larger molecules, known as a polymer. It was injected into a rat with cancer. A few weeks later, the tumor disappeared. Simanek knows the process is at least years away from human trials.

Simanek: Whether we're doing better in terms of side effects, as determined by weight loss, or where we can actually incorporate imaging, so we can actually watch the medicine as it's working in a patient, is it actually getting to the tumor? Those are the next rounds of questions. It's a difficult problem.

Cancer is not the only problem TCU chemists are attacking with nanotechnology. One professor is using etched, pulverized and nano-sized silicon chips. Impregnated with powerful drugs, they can be used in sensitive parts of the body needing treatment, like the eyeball, Better that than multiple, painful injections.

Dr. Keith Argenbright, a cancer expert, believes nano-scale research is where future cancer solutions will be found. He's with UT Southwestern Medical Center's Comprehensive Cancer Center in Fort Worth.

Doctor Keith Argenbright: In order to take the next step at effective treatment, we have to incorporate our understanding of cancer at the cellular and the DNA level and be able to design the treatments that can work at that cellular and DNA level. And nanotechnology is the only way to get there

Valerie Oxford is hopeful.

Oxford: For all the people undergoing cancer treatment today, anything that would make it easier, would make it less frightening, less intimidating, would be a wonderful thing. I don't think that anyone would be hesitant to try something that would guarantee them that.

So far, Oxford is doing well with her cancer. Simanek says he should know soon whether his team will receive additional NIH funding focused on cancer research.

Email Bill Zeeble

Dr. Simanek's Website
Professor Coffer's Faculty Page "Chemo & Side Effects