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Researcher Uses Nanomedicine for Breast Cancer Treatment

Prakash Rai’s Work Is Funded by $725K Grant from NCI/NIH

UMass Lowell Image
This microscope view at 100× magnification shows breast cancer cells invading normal tissues and establishing new centers of growth.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among women in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008 more than 210,000 women were diagnosed with the disease, and close to 41,000 died from it.

Nanotechnology has made major contributions to breast cancer therapy, using nanoparticles measuring only billionths of a meter to deliver drug molecules directly to the affected tissue.

“A nanoparticle-based drug called Abraxane is being used in clinics to treat breast cancer patients,” says chemical engineering Asst. Prof. Prakash Rai. “However, the disease continues to be a major health concern, with a dire need for better, more effective treatments with lower side effects.”

Rai has been awarded a grant by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NCI/NIH) totaling more than $725,000 to study a combined, nanotechnology-based diagnostic/therapeutic strategy for the targeted treatment of two subtypes of breast cancer: the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 positive (HER2+) and the triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

“HER2-positive and TNBC are among the most difficult types of breast cancer to treat, with resistance to primary treatments a major issue in patients with recurring disease,” notes Rai.

The Emerging Field of Theranostics

Theranostics, a combination of therapeutics and diagnostics, is a relatively new field in medicine that helps guide doctors in deciding the best therapy to prescribe for a particular patient. Instead of a broad, generic approach to treatment, this personalized medicine ensures the patient will receive only the drug he or she actually needs, thereby maximizing the therapeutic benefits while minimizing unwanted adverse side effects.

Rai and his research team plan to combine several therapeutic agents that have shown potential in cancer treatment into a single nanometer-sized targeted drug-delivery platform — called a theranostic nanoconstruct (TNC) — and test the nanoplatform’s treatment effectiveness in lab mice.

“The combination of these therapeutic agents with an imaging agent into one TNC will help reduce the dose required in a patient to achieve efficacy, thus reducing the toxic side effects,” explains Rai.

He says the imaging agent will help the team locate the TNCs and track them after they have been injected into the body, eventually leading the researchers to the cancerous tissues.

“Targeting the TNCs specifically to cancer cells should help reduce the collateral damage to healthy, normal cells,” notes Rai. “If successful, these image-guided, targeted therapies should make a significant impact on the clinical care of breast cancer patients by improving survival and overall quality of life.”

Cancer is a very complex disease with a great degree of variability even within the same subtype of a particular cancer, he says.

“This is what makes it very difficult to treat using the ‘one-drug-fits-all’ approach that has been traditionally used,” says Rai.

Theranostic nanomedicine offers the possibility to detect, image and treat the disease at the same time. It is also possible to assess and monitor the patient’s response to the treatment and, if required, initiate secondary treatments to cure the disease, he adds.

Rai says the theranostic nanotechnology-based platforms that will be developed in this project are broadly applicable not only to other types of cancer, but can also be easily adapted to treat other diseases, including atherosclerosis and infectious and neurodegenerative diseases.

“Although theranostic nanomedicine as a field is still in its infancy, in the near future it is expected to significantly impact patient care by making it possible to treat each patient with a personalized treatment unique to his or her disease,” he says.

Rai completed his postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School and joined UMass Lowell’s Department of Chemical Engineering in September 2012. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mumbai in India in 2003 and master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical and biological engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2007.