Toning down cancer’s aggressiveness

The fight against some cancers could depend on using nanotechnology to trick tumor cells into feeling well fed.

Mansoor Amiji, Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Northeastern University, believes tumor cells—like people—become more aggressive in pursuit of nourishment when they’re “hungry.” He theorizes that clusters of cancer cells deep within a tumor, where they receive limited oxygen and other nutrients, have higher stress levels and are more aggressive in fighting off chemotherapy.

Working from this theory, Amiji, who chairs the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the School of Pharmacy within the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, will collaborate with researchers at Northeastern and Massachusetts General Hospital to explore innovative drug delivery and gene-silencing strategies to target these cancers. Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Rebecca Carrier and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Robert Hanson are Amiji’s Northeastern collaborators.

The researchers are working on using nanoparticles, engineered for drug delivery, to reverse the tumor cell clusters’ resistance to anti-cancer therapies. The nanoparticles would permeate the parts of tumors where the aggressive cells live, carrying RNA molecules that would block messages from disease-causing genes. Cutting off that communication would prevent the tumor cells from developing certain proteins that make them aggressive.

Amiji predicts suppressing their aggression—or “hunger”—could be a major breakthrough in treating highly aggressive ovarian and lung cancers.

“When living in this (hostile) environment, the threshold for killing tumor cells is much higher,” Amiji said. “We want the threshold to be minimal so low doses of chemotherapy will kill those cells and make the treatment safer.”

Relapse is common for ovarian and lung cancers, and drugs used in the first round of treatment often become ineffective in future treatments, Amiji explained. As a result, a doctor’s primary recourse is to create cocktails of multiple drugs and increase the dosages. But Amiji hopes his new approach can replace this current treatment method.

Amiji’s project, which advances Northeastern’s leadership in use-inspired, interdisciplinary health research, is funded by a five-year, $2.32 million Cancer Nanotechnology Platform Partnership grant from the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer program. Through this grant, Amiji and his team will also develop a library of target-specific nanoparticles they can screen and select from on a case-by-case basis when treating various forms of cancer.

Amiji pointed to Northeastern’s tremendous momentum in nanotechnology research. The NCI recently designated Northeastern a Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence with a $13.5 million award. Northeastern’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) nanomedicine program recently received a $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue its success in educating the next generation of scientists and technologists in nanomedicine.

The University also signed an agreement in September with federal health researchers to advance research and guidance for occupational safety and health in nanotechnology.

“We have created a coherent nucleus of research and education in translational nanomedicine at Northeastern,” Amiji said.

View selected publications of Mansoor Amiji in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.