The University Record, October 25, 1999

U scientists to develop ‘smart bombs’ that seek out and destroy cancer cells

By Sally Pobojewski
Health System Public Relations

U-M scientists will receive $4.4 million from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to develop an innovative approach to cancer treatment—nanomolecular “smart bombs” that sense pre-malignant and cancerous changes inside living cells and then destroy the cells before they can grow into tumors.

“Our goal is to create a multi-functional therapeutic device small enough to work inside living cells,” says James R. Baker Jr., the project’s principal investigator who directs the Center for Biologic Nanotechnology in the Medical School. “The device will target to abnormal cells. If it confirms pre-cancerous lesions, it can release a substance to kill the cell and then verify that the cell is dead.”

The U-M project is one of five funded by the NCI’s new Unconventional Innovations Program, which supports peer-reviewed, high-risk, high-impact research with the potential to revolutionize cancer care.

“During the last decade, scientists have learned a great deal about biochemical and genetic changes within cells that can lead to cancer,” says Allen Lichter, a cancer specialist and dean of the Medical School. “Now we need to develop new ways to identify and treat these changes at the molecular level long before they can be detected with current technology. Research funded by this National Cancer Institute program could help bring us closer to that goal.”

Synthetic polymers called dendrimers will be used as delivery vehicles to transport anti-cancer drugs and sensing agents into cells, according to Baker. “Dendrimers already are used in many biological applications,” he says. “They have been shown to readily enter cells, and they have little toxicity when given intravenously.”

Fifteen researchers from the Medical School, College of Engineering and LS&A will collaborate on the three-year research project. Working together, the scientists hope to develop new sensing technologies capable of imaging biochemical changes within cells. Researchers in the College of Engineering will concentrate on finding ways to use ultrafast laser or sound wave energy pulses to release anti-cancer drugs stored inside dendrimers.

“We are proud that Dr. James Baker and the Center for Biologic Nanotechnology is leading the way in developing this innovative technology,” says Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs. “This new National Cancer Institute program shows that the NCI and the National Institutes of Health are putting the nation’s increased investment in biomedical research to work in terrific new ways likely to speed the application to patient care.”

Individuals from the Medical School who are involved in the project include Brian Athey, assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology; Stephen Ethier, associate professor of radiation oncology; James Mulay, professor of surgery and of internal medicine; Donald Tomalia, senior research scientist; Jolanta Kukowska, research investigator; Anna Bielinska, research investigator; and research associates Lajos Balogh, Istvan Majoros and Lars Piehler.

Collaborators from other U-M units include Mark Banaszak-Holl, assistant professor of chemistry; Bradford Orr, associate professor of physics; Emmett Leith, professor of electrical engineering and computer science; Theodore Norris, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and Gerard Mourou, professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

The National Cancer Institute is a federal agency and part of the National Institutes of Health.