Nano technology targets brain cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 8562By: Liv Osby


Brain cancer can be difficult to treat and existing therapies can have devastating side effects.

But a Clemson University researcher hopes an approach he is working on will be a game changer in treating the often deadly disease.

Frank Alexis is working on developing nanoparticles — about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair — that can deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to the tumor.

A formulation patent is pending on that therapy, said Alexis, an assistant professor of bioengineering who holds several such patents. That is why the journal, Nature Biotechnology, included Alexis on its list of top junior faculty researchers in the nation for the number of patents they’ve been awarded, Clemson announced Thursday.

Every year, more than 35,000 Americans are diagnosed with a tumor that started in the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. Many others have cancer in their brains that spread from another site in the body, such as the lungs.

“Brain cancer is one of the most fatal cancers,” Alexis told GreenvilleOnline. “It affects children and adults, it’s a very aggressive cancer, and the life expectations are very short after it is diagnosed. And current treatments are not working very well.”

But Alexis’ approach takes advantage of the fact that brain tumors have defective blood vessels that allow nanoparticle-carrying drugs to collect inside the tumor and hopefully destroy it. Other tissues don’t have these defects, he said.

Typically when a chemotherapy drug is administered, it stays in the body for a short time, maybe a few minutes, which isn’t enough for the drug to accumulate in the tumor, he said. Nanoparticles, which are administered by intravenous infusion, enable the drugs to stay in the tumor for 24 to 48 hours and attack the cancer cells, he said. This approach also has fewer side effects, he said.

The method, which uses nanoparticles developed from a type of material found in biodegradable sutures, is being studied by researchers elsewhere for prostate and breast cancers, Alexis said.

“With this material, we can make very tiny particles that will be able to circulate in the body through the blood stream, and then enter inside the cancer cells and then be able to deliver a drug to kill the cancer,” he said, adding that he is focusing on getter funding to further his research.

“We have a lot of hope.”

Alexis, who has six patents for work he did prior to arriving at Clemson in 2009, said he has another four pending, including the one for this therapy. As well as being administered intravenously, some can be given orally or inhaled, he said.

The six patents placed him third on Nature Biotechnology list of five top translational junior faculty in 2013. Translational research focuses on taking a discovery from the lab to the patient’s bedside.

“Translational research is a cornerstone of our strategic plan,” said Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science. “The work that Dr. Alexis and others are doing creates a high impact on society. I’d like to congratulate him on making the journal’s list.”