Nanomedicine: Graduate Students use Nanoparticles to Address Key Challenges in Disease Diagnosis and Therapy
Northeastern graduate students Tatyana Chernenko, Yogesh Patel and Brian Plouffe are refining traditional methods of health care by using nanotechnology to develop non-invasive cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Each is a trainee in Northeastern's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) doctoral program in Nanomedicine Science and Technology. The program, directed by Dr. Srinivas Sridhar, aims to educate the next generation of scientists and technologists from a number of fields by providing the necessary business, ethical and global perspectives to address scientific and engineering challenges that will be needed in the rapidly emerging area of applying nanotechnology to human health.
The work of these IGERT students concentrates on using nanoparticles, which are sized between an atom and a living cell. By working with such tiny particles, Chernenko, Patel and Plouffe are able to more closely detect and locate cancerous cells and treat them.
"Understanding what is wrong on the intracellular level is the only way we can prevent it in the future," Chernenko says, adding, "nanotechnology can localize the drug then deliver it to a specific site of action."
Chernenko's focus is optical imaging. After introducing nanoparticles to deliver drugs within the cell, she uses non-destructive infrared imaging to monitor how the cell reacts to stimuli. Chernenko originally came to Northeastern as a PhD student in Chemistry, but is now what she calls a "shared entity" between the Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences departments.
"I came to Northeastern basically for one professor," she says, "IGERT has helped me see science cannot exist in one niche - it's a synergy of biology, microbiology, chemistry and physics."
Similarly, Patel, an Electrical Engineer, is applying his math and science background to medicine.
"I was actually not very familiar with nanotechnology prior to coming to Northeastern," he says, attributing the IGERT program with broadening his research depth and allowing him to "interact with chemistry students, biology students and other engineering fields which I wouldn't be able to had I just been focused primarily on my research."
Patel is developing an imaging modality to detect skin cancer non-invasively. He describes the current medical technique as "cut-first and ask questions afterward." He hopes his research will change the methodology by leading to a detection device for use in clinical settings.
As a Chemical Engineer, Plouffe also foresees his work having clinical applications. He magnetically manipulates nanoparticles to diagnose, separate and track cancer cells to determine a treatment's effectiveness. Plouffe says the science behind circulating tumor cells is well-understood, but there is no instrument to efficiently or economically remove the cells from blood.
Once the technology advances, he hopes it "can affect multiple diseases - not just cancer." After completing his PhD, Plouffe looks forward to applying his experience commercially. "Northeastern allows me to really get into networking," he details, "Northeastern...has a lot of connections not just here in Boston but throughout the world."
Collectively, the students have collaborated with Harvard and Tufts Medical Schools, Children's and Massachusetts General Hospitals in Boston, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, and with industry partners, including Pfizer and Novartis.
They have also benefitted from Northeastern's location. "Boston seems to be a very nice hub," says Chernenko, "and a congolmerate of different labs and fields and people who are very much interested in collaborating and progressing in the field of technology on the whole to better human health and environment."
It is predicted that nanotechnology will play a vital role in eliminating suffering and death caused by cancer as well as other diseases. As the global market for nanotechnology is anticipated to grow to $1 trillion by 2015, Northeastern graduate students' contributions to new devices, drug delivery techniques and diagnostic tools demonstrate translational research that is not only impacting patient care, but that is ahead of its time.
Northeastern's Nanomedicine Science and Technology program is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health. For more information, see http://www.igert.neu.edu/.
Submitted by Beth Giudicessi, March 2011.