Enormous potential in a tiny package

Hutchinson Center joins NCI research alliance on five-year, $20 million nanotechnology effort
Dr. Sam Hanash and research technician Doug Phanstiel use a mass spectrometer
PHS division's Dr. Sam Hanash and research technician Doug Phanstiel use a mass spectrometer to search blood serum for molecular "barcodes" to identify rare cancer-specific markers for early disease diagnosis. A project co-leader under the new NCI grant, Hanash will provide "a comprehensive parts list of the prostate-cancer cell surface and explore how these proteins change in response to therapy." Photo by Gordon Todd

Picture a scientific tool small enough to slip into cancer cells and able to describe what it finds. Such a possibility has piqued the interest of the National Cancer Institute, leading to a $20 million nanotechnology initiative that brings together scientists and physicians interested in very small things with huge cancer-treatment potential. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a partner of the recently announced program, which is led by Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Sam Hanash of the Public Health Sciences Division spearheads the Center's efforts to improve cancer diagnostics, imaging and therapeutics with nanotechnology.

What is nanomedicine?

Nanotechnology is used to describe many types of research where the characteristic dimensions are less than about 1,000 nanometers — about 1/10,000th of a cross-section of a single human hair. The human body is comprised of molecules; hence the development of molecular nanotechnology will likely bring dramatic progress in medical services. More than just an extension of molecular medicine, nanomedicine will employ molecular machine systems to maintain and improve human health at the molecular level.

Alliance members

The eight NCI Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence are research alliances of cancer centers, medical institutions, schools of engineering and physical sciences, nonprofit organizations and private corporations. Their mission is to integrate nanotechnology into cancer research using a team approach.

Radiology and bioengineering professor Dr. Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, director of the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford, leads the Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence Focused on Therapy Response. Other collaborators include UCLA, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, University of Texas-Austin, General Electric Global Research and Intel Corp. Outreach to the community will be coordinated by the Canary Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on early cancer detection and started by Center supporter Don Listwin.

The five-year award, of which the Center will receive about $2 million, focuses on using nanotechnology to advance both molecular imaging and disease detection. The group believes the combined use of these nanotechnology-enabled diagnostic tools will markedly impact how cancer is detected, monitored and treated in the future. In addition to developing general oncology applications, the team will particularly focus on prostate cancer.

Hanash and colleagues were tapped for their experience in proteomics, the large-scale analysis of proteins in the blood. They will profile the proteins on the surface of prostate-cancer cells.

"The particular focus of our activities is to provide a comprehensive parts list of the prostate-cancer cell surface and explore how these proteins change in response to therapy," said Hanash, a co-leader on the project. "The cell surface is an important target for diagnostics, imaging and therapeutics, and, therefore, this work is highly relevant to all three areas."

Transforming clinical outcomes

The awardees are enthusiastic and hopeful about their project's potential, Gambhir said. "It has become clear to everyone in the cancer community that the ability to monitor cancer therapies in their earliest stages is a critical opportunity — almost within our grasp — that will transform clinical outcomes for patients," he said. "Our center gathers some of the finest minds in the academic and private sectors to use nanotechnology in the development of a new generation of management tools to fight some of the deadliest cancers. These technologies will also eventually impact the early detection of cancer".

Positive near-term impact

"I cannot think of any comparable research effort as large in its magnitude, as potentially positive in its near-term impact or as focused in its intent as this collaboration," Gambhir said. Hanash mirrors his fellow researcher's optimism. "I am very excited about this project because it represents multi-disciplinary collaborative research that brings together world-class experts to integrate innovative technologies from discovery to application in the clinic."

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