AUSTIN, Texas—A group of University of Texas at Austin biomedical engineers has received an $8 million, five-year Bioengineering Research Partnership grant from the National Cancer Institute to learn more about the genetics of cancer development and create inexpensive and accurate methods to diagnose and monitor treatment of the disease.
“I think we can improve not only early cancer detection, but also help determine which therapy will be most effective for an individual patient, and provide the ability to monitor whether a particular therapy is effective or needs to be changed,” said Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum, biomedical engineering professor and the project’s principal investigator.
The study will focus on cancers of the lung, cervix and oral cavity, which together represent more than 20 percent of tumor incidence and mortality worldwide.
During the initial stage of the grant, the researchers want to identify unique genetic and molecular signatures of the tumors. Currently, says Richards-Kortum, physicians identify tumors by visual examination in the clinic or through a microscope. But the prognosis of the disease and the best treatment may actually be determined by the tumor genotype, which can’t be seen with the naked eye.
Once the researchers identify molecular markers of the tumors, they will develop “contrast agents” to bind to tumor cells with those molecular characteristics. The agents would improve the accuracy of identifying tumors at the earliest possible stage without the need to remove tissue. The contrast agents could be sprayed, painted on or injected into suspicious tissue.
The last step of the project will be to create miniature high resolution microscopes to view the molecular changes indicated by the contrast agents. Richards-Kortum envisions these to be plastic scopes attached to the end of a device the size of a pencil. When a physician identifies an area he or she wants to view more closely, the microscope would simply be placed onto the tissue. She believes the tiny microscopes can be made so inexpensively they can be disposable.
Richards-Kortum and her research team will conduct tests on cell cultures, tissue cultures and animal models. At the end of the grant period, they’d like to have enough data about the contrast agents to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for human trials.
The University of Texas at Austin team is collaborating with research teams from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the British Columbia Cancer Agency, the University of Arizona and the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Project leaders include Dr. Konstantin Sokolov, Dr. Calum MacAulay, Dr. Michael Descour and Dr. Karen Adler Storthz.
A laser probe developed by Richards-Kortum and M.D. Anderson’s Dr. Michele Follen is in multi-center clinical trials for early detection of cervical cancer and precancer.
For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.