By Alison Davis
January 20, 2010
Shuming Nie, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Hematology/Oncology, Emory University
Dr. Shuming Nie
The science of nanotechnology involves developing and manipulating materials on the same scale at which our bodies carry out the chemical reactions that keep us alive. Researchers want to use nanomaterials — materials with dimensions smaller than 100 nanometers — for all sorts of applications related to health and disease. Biomedical engineer Dr. Shuming Nie thinks that in the coming years, the biggest advances in battling diseases like cancer will come from the world of the very, very small.
The Problem: Although rates have declined in recent years, cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the United States. Surgery is currently the most effective and widely used treatment for most human cancers, effectively curing nearly half of patients. Today, the single most important predictor of patient survival is the complete removal of a patient's tumor.
Cancer surgeons use imaging methods like computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound to find a tumor inside the body. In addition to surgery, cancer patients often receive radiation and chemotherapy medicines. But all three methods risk damage to normal tissues, and doctors cannot ensure that all the tumor cells have been removed. Currently, the limiting factor in detecting microscopic tumors at the time of surgery is the sensitivity of the human eye, which cannot effectively distinguish tumor cells from healthy tissue at the edges of a tumor.
Finding a Solution: As one of the first researchers to bring nanoscience from the world of manufacturing to that of medicine and health, Dr. Nie has been a trailblazer in nanotechnology. Several years ago, Dr. Nie developed a nano-detection scheme based upon multicolored, fluorescent particles. Called quantum dots, these microscopic semiconductor crystals tag an individual protein or gene with one of a rainbow of colors.
Vials containing nanocrystals reflecting different colors under ultraviolet light. The colored crystals tag tumors to aid in surgical procedures.
Image courtesy of Dr. Shuming Nie, professor of biomedical engineering at Emory University. This image also appeared on the Biomedical Beat website.
Since then, Dr. Nie has expanded his nanotechnology research to create gold-containing nanoparticles that shine even more brightly than quantum dots, are long-lasting and safe in the body, and target tumors precisely. Nanoscale gold particles can be prepared in a variety of shapes, including wires, rods, cubes, prisms and disks. Perhaps the particles' most useful property for medicine is their "sticky" surface, which allows scientists to simply "glue" on attachments, such as antibodies, imaging probes, sensing devices — and in time, possibly even miniature drugs.
Dr. Nie is using Recovery Act funds to develop a method of cancer surgery in which MRI or CT scans light up the precise areas of a tumor coated by a layer of nanoparticles, effectively tracing an outline for a surgeon as he or she removes the tumor. In the future, Dr. Nie's nanomaterials could also be useful in finding bits of cancer that have spread but are too small to see with traditional imaging and for delivery vehicles that take drugs directly to tumors.
How This Funding Helps: The new Recovery Act funding helped Dr. Nie assemble a talented team of doctors and scientists that will speed progress in this exciting field with near-term applicability to medicine.
After Two Years … Dr. Nie predicts that, in addition to guiding surgical procedures, in five to 10 years, nanomaterials will be used in many cancer applications, such as helping to deliver cancer drugs in a way that spares healthy cells. Results from this Recovery Act project should enable researchers to attach to the nanoparticles "targeted therapies" — antibodies and small molecules that can selectively seek and destroy tumor cells.
"Our nanomaterials will have broad applications in cancer imaging, detection and diagnosis," Dr. Nie predicts, adding that this research could change the way some cancers are treated.
Recovery Act Investment: The "Nanotechnology for Multiplexed and Intraoperative Cancer Detection" study received $980,999 in fiscal 2009 ($490,499 from the NIH Office of the Director and $490,500 from the National Cancer Institute).