New technology may detect cancer cells and deliver treatment

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Biophysicists from the University of Rhode Island (URI) in Kingston have reported they have discovered a technology that can detect cancerous tumors and deliver treatment to them without the harming the healthy cells surrounding them, thereby significantly reducing side effects.

The research was conducted by Yana Reshetnyak, PhD, and Oleg Andreev, PhD, associate professors in the department of physics at URI.  “It is possible, that one day the detection method could be used as a universal procedure, similar to mammography or colonoscopies," Andreev said.

Donald Engelman, PhD, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., discovered the peptide that targets acidity, now called the pHLIP peptide, but had not employed it until Reshetnyak joined his lab as a postdoctoral student in 2003.

“Normal cells maintain a pH of 7.4 with little variation, while cancer cells have an extracellular pH level of 5.5 to 6.5, as they rapidly proliferate, pumping protons outside and creating a higher acidity,” according to the researchers.

In addition to targeting cancerous tumors,  the peptide can deliver nanogold particles into the cancerous tumor. Once in place, the tiny gold particles can absorb more radiation, providing a more lethal dose to the tumor, but not to surrounding healthy cells.

“Since we know the mechanism of delivery and translocation, we believe that we are able to tune the nanosyringe properties and engineer a novel class of therapeutic and diagnostic agents,” said Reshetnyak.

The researchers suggested that their discovery method could be used to monitor other diseases and treatments. It also could play an important role in the study of arthritis, inflammation, infection, infarction and stroke since those conditions also produce high acidity.

The URI researchers have attracted more than $6 million in grants in four years. In addition, a number of healthcare and pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest in their work.