KINGSTON – Two biophysicists at the University of Rhode Island have attracted more than $6 million in grants in the last four years to develop a technology they believe could detect cancer and treat it without harming the surrounding healthy cells.
The researchers, Yana Reshetnyak and Oleg Andreev, have also drawn the attention of several health care and pharmaceutical companies for their discovery, which they say could one day lead to new testing methods as common as mammograms or colonoscopies.
The technology works by detecting the acidity level of cells. While normal cells maintain a pH of 7.4 with little variation, cancer cells can be more acidic, with pH levels between 5.5 and 6.5, because they expend a lot of energy as they proliferate and pump protons outside.
Scientists have known about tumor acidity for years but didn’t know how to target it. Then Yale University researcher Donald Engelman discovered a peptide that targets acidity. In 2003, Reshetnyak joined his lab as a postdoctoral student, and she and Andreev, then a senior scientist at a cancer drug delivery company, suggested testing it as a cancer targeting agent.
Reshetnyak and Andreev joined the physics department at URI in 2004, and since then, they have continued to work with Engleman, demonstrating that a modified version of the peptide could “find” a tumor in a mouse and deliver imaging or therapeutic agents specifically to cancer cells. Patents are pending in the United States and Europe.
The technology has been tested in a project with Rhode Island Hospital that showed the peptide could deliver gold nanoparticles into tumors. The nanoparticles absorb radiation, drawing a more lethal dose to the cancer cells while sparing the healthy tissue.
The two URI scientists have also developed a new delivery agent, a molecular nanosyringe, which can deliver and inject diagnostic or therapeutic agents specifically to cancer cells.
“Drs. Reshetnyak’s and Andreev’s research offers a potential for a new and more effective approach to the treatment of cancer with radiation, making it highly intriguing and important,” said Edward S. Sternick, medical physicist-in-chief for radiation oncology at Rhode Island Hospital and professor and vice chair of radiation oncology at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
The URI researchers are collaborating on a $1.5 million National Institutes of Heath/National Cancer Institute grant with Jason S. Lewis, chief of radiochemistry service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. They are also working with URI to develop a new five-year degree program that combines medicine and physics.
URI recruited Reshetnyak in 2004 as an ADVANCE Faculty Fellow, part of a National Science Foundation effort to the increase the number of women faculty in the science, technology and engineering fields. Andreev, her husband, joined her soon after.