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.