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UT leads collaborative initiative for innovative cancer research

A consortium led by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston has been awarded a major grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to establish a center to conduct innovative cancer research. The center will receive $2.4 million during the first year and could receive funds totaling $11.6 million over a 5-year period. The new center is called the Center for Transport Oncophysics (CTO).

The CTO is one of the first 12 Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers (PS-OCs) being created by the NCI in an effort to bring a new cadre of theoretical physicists, mathematicians, chemists and engineers to the study of cancer. The consortium also includes The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Rice University and Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital.

Ultimately, through coordinated development and testing of novel approaches to studying cancer processes, the network of PS-OCs is expected to generate new bodies of knowledge in order to identify and define critical aspects of physics, chemistry and engineering that operate at all levels in cancer processes.

"By bringing a fresh set of eyes to the study of cancer, these new centers have great potential to advance, and sometimes challenge, accepted theories about cancer and its supportive microenvironment," said NCI Director John E. Niederhuber, M.D. "Physical scientists think in terms of time, space, pressure, heat, and evolution in ways that we hope will lead to new understandings of the multitude of forces that govern cancer-and with that understanding, we hope to develop new and innovative methods of arresting tumor growth and metastasis."

"The Center for Transport Oncophysics will focus on understanding how biological molecules and drugs are transported in cancer and healthy tissues. This will allow a new vision, a new prism through which to look at cancer and exploit its weaknesses to mount decisive attacks against its most damaging forms, such as metastatic and locally advanced disease," said Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D., who is the CTO's principal investigator and who has faculty appointments at all the consortium institutions in Texas.

"The CTO is a broadly interdisciplinary quest, which links world-famous clinicians and cancer biologists at M. D. Anderson with nanomedicine, biomathematics, imaging and drug-delivery experts at the UT Health Science Center at Houston, Rice, UT Austin and Harvard. It is a great team that can achieve unprecedented results. It is a coronation of the concept of collaborations beyond institutional and disciplinary boundaries - another great success of the Alliance for NanoHealth," Ferrari said.

Ferrari serves as professor and chairman of the Department of NanoMedicine and Biomedical Engineering at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, a part of the UT Health Science Center.

In addition to research traditionally focused on the biology of tumors, CTO researchers aim to investigate the differences in transport phenomena that characterize neoplastic disease and to establish methods for the exploitation of these differentials for advances in the diagnosis and therapy of cancer.

CTO investigators will focus on research projects targeting liver cancers. The researchers believe primary liver cancer and cancer that spreads to the liver from tumors that originate in other parts of the body will help them learn more about the spread of tumors in general. Research projects include learning more about the biobarriers that keep cancer therapeutic agents from reaching tumors and investigating how to concentrate more agent at the site of a tumor.

Co-leading the consortium is Steven Curley, M.D., professor in M. D. Anderson's Department of Surgical Oncology. "This novel collaboration will help us sharpen a promising potential therapy that destroys tumors by using radio waves to heat up gold nanoparticles embedded inside them," Curley said.

This approach was invented by the late John Kanzius, an entrepreneur, former radio station owner and M. D. Anderson patient who knew that radio waves, which usually pass harmlessly through the body, will cook any metal in their path. "The key to making this work is to so precisely target nanoparticles to the tumor that you destroy the tumor with radio waves while sparing other tissue," Curley said. "The CTO will address that central issue."

Nicholas Peppas, Sc.D., one of the project leaders of the grant, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UT Austin and the Fletcher Stuckey Pratt Chair in Engineering, said, "I am delighted to collaborate with my colleagues at the UT Health Science Center on this extremely important research. Our work will provide advanced forms of oral delivery of chemotherapeutic agents and will identify cellular mechanisms that will improve the administration of drugs for cancer treatment to specific sites."

Other CTO senior project leaders and faculty investigators include M. D. Anderson Cancer Center researchers: Isaiah J. Fidler, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor of the Department of Cancer Biology; Wadih Arap, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine and cancer biology; and Renata Pasqualini, Ph.D., professor of medicine and cancer biology. CTO researchers from Rice University include Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering, and Lon J. Wilson, Ph.D., professor of chemistry. CTO members from the UT Health Science Center include: Vittorio Cristini, Ph.D., professor of health informatics, and Paolo Decuzzi, Ph.D., associate professor of health informatics. Representing the Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital is Seok-Hyun "Andy" Yun, Ph.D. , assistant professor of dermatology.

"Cancerous cells and tissues interact with light differently than healthy tissues, and our lab works to develop minimally invasive technologies that recognize these differences," said Richards-Kortum, one of the core leaders of CTO and a researcher in Rice's new BioScience Research Collaborative. "Through the Center for Oncophysics, we hope to develop and test new imaging technologies that better detect the optical signatures of cancer and help monitor the delivery of targeted agents to detect and treat cancers - technologies that could ultimately help save lives with earlier diagnoses and more effective therapy."

Ferrari serves as professor of experimental therapeutics at M. D. Anderson, adjunct professor of bioengineering at Rice University, adjoint professor of biomedical engineering at UT Austin, adjunct professor of mathematics and mechanical engineering at the University of Houston and president of the Alliance for NanoHealth, Houston. Ferrari serves as the UT Health Science Center chair of the inter-institutional Department of Biomedical Engineering formed in collaboration with M.D. Anderson and UT Austin College of Engineering.


Contact: Robert Cahill
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

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