Susan Braunhut's Research Laboratory


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Medical Device Development
Nanodiagnostics and Nanotherapeutics

Over the past decade, the lab team has focused on improving the diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients. These efforts have led to the development of four different medical device applications.

 Quartz Crystal Nanobalance

In collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Marx in the UMass Lowell Chemistry Department, we have developed the quartz crystal nanobalance for use with living cells. We’ve discovered that, as the cells attach and spread in the QCM, we can monitor cell behavior in a novel way. When we compare the behaviors of normal cells to cancer cells, there are distinct differences over the first 24 hours of monitoring. By using small numbers of cells from a patient biopsy sample, we’ve been able to distinguish samples that only contain normal cells from those that have tumor cells. We are now analyzing clinical samples of breast tissue obtained from Saints Memorial Cancer Center in Lowell to see if we can accurately identify cancerous lesions from benign samples.

 Drug Response Biosensors

Using this same device but in a modified way, we’ve adapted the quartz crystal nanobalance as a drug response predictor. Today, when a patient is diagnosed with cancer, the therapy regime is surgical removal of the bulk of the tumor, radiation of the local area and if the tumor cells have entered the surrounding tissue or blood stream a regimen of chemotherapeutics begins. There are many choices of chemotherapeutics, each with their adverse effects, yet currently there’s no way to predict which drug is best for the treatment of a particular patient’s tumor. We have placed patient’s tumor cells in the QCM and are able to simultaneously compare the response of the cells to several different drugs outside the body. We can rapidly distinguish the drugs that work and those that don’t for that patient’s tumor. Using this device, we hope to provide the managing oncologist with a way to better choose the treatment for each patient. We are currently testing our prediction of drug responsiveness, using clinical samples from patients at Saints Memorial Cancer Center in Lowell.

 The Smart Bandage

Also in collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Marx, we’ve developed a medical device for the treatment of wounds and burns called the Smart Bandage. We’ve been studying the use of electrical potential to release growth factors from cell free extracellular matrices. All living cells synthesize a thick mat of proteins to survive both in vivo and in vitro. Different cells use different proteins when they construct this matrix. Some cells enrich the matrix with potent wound healing growth factors as the matrix is being made. These growth factors are longer lived when stored in the matrix and are more potent when released with matrix molecules. We’ve invented a way to trick cells into synthesizing a matrix enriched with the growth factors we want for either the treatment of a burn or of a common laceration or a bite. We’ve invented a way to remove the cells leaving the matrix intact so it can be stored for long periods of time. We’ve also discovered a way to release just the growth factors we want on demand.

 Supraparamagnetic Nanoparticles

In collaboration with a private company in North Chelmsford, Triton Biosystems, the lab team has assisted in developing a novel treatment for breast cancer. Using supraparamagnetic nanoparticles, we’ve bound these particles to antibodies. The antibodies were selected because they are capable of only binding to tumor cells and not to normal cells. The antibody therefore delivers the nanaoparticle to the surface of the tumor cell and binds there. The nanoparticles are benign until exposed to magnetic fields, at which time they become very hot and burn a hole in the membrane of the tumor cell, thus killing it. We can inject the antibody tagged with the nanoparticle into the vein of an animal, and the antibody finds the tumor cells in the animal within a primary tumor and within metastatic lesions. If we expose the animal to brief magnetic field, the tumor cells are killed at both primary and metastatic locations. We’re now preparing the antibody-nanoparticle solutions for use in humans and will be embarking on human trials over the next two years.