Nanotechnology initiative establishes centers of excellence at major universities

October 10, 2005

Nanotechnology at this point is more about the journey than the destination. The benefits for radiology, specifically molecular imaging, from this technology may be decades away. A major step in that voyage has been taken, however.

Nanotechnology at this point is more about the journey than the destination. The benefits for radiology, specifically molecular imaging, from this technology may be decades away. A major step in that voyage has been taken, however.

On Oct. 3, the National Cancer Institute's Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence program announced the locations of seven centers to be financed with first-year grants totaling $26.3 million. The NCI plans to spend $144.3 million on nanotechnology over the next five years. Its Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer will coordinate the program.

"Through the applications of nanotechnology, we will increase the rate of progress toward eliminating the suffering and death due to cancer," said NCI director Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach in a teleconference announcing the centers.

The projects are interdisciplinary, involving biochemistry, engineering, physics, genetics, informatics, oncology, and imaging sciences. The NCI is encouraging the centers to collaborate with private businesses. Applied Biosystems, Bristol Myers Squibb, Hewlett Packard, and Philips Medical Systems are already involved in some projects.

The Siteman Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence at Washington University in St. Louis, the MIT-Harvard Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence in Boston, and the Nanosystems Biology Cancer Centers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, are all associated with molecular imaging laboratories that have already made major discoveries.

Dr. Samuel Wickline, principal Siteman Center investigator, is the coinventor of emulation-based perfluorocarbon nanoparticles that provide targeted imaging and drug delivery to sites of early angiogenic processes associated with cancer and atherosclerosis. The nanoparticles may be adapted for MR, CT, and ultrasound imaging of structures or tumors as small as 1 mm. With optical imaging, the resolution potentially improves to 1 nm, von Eschenbach said.

Dr. Ralph Weissleder, director of the Center for Molecular Imaging Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, is also codirector of the MIT-Harvard center. As the largest molecular imaging laboratory in the U.S., CMRI has pioneered optical imaging and smart contrast agent technologies.

The MIT-Harvard center will create new types of nanoparticles and targeting strategies, according to codirector Robert Langer, Ph.D. These include the use of nucleic acid ligands called aptimers for targeted delivery of drugs to prostate cancer cells, the development of nontoxic quantum dot, a leading candidate for future imaging contrast development, and the design of implantable microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) for programmable drug delivery.

The Nanosystems center will pursue targeted PET agents, in part because of the involvement of Michael Phelps, Ph.D., chair of the molecular and medical pharmacology department at the University of California, Los Angeles. The lab's other partners are the California Institute of Technology and Dr. Leroy Hood's Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.

The center will develop new agents to target organ-specific secreted proteins for imaging prostate cancer, gliosarcoma, and other neoplasms, according to principal investigator James Heath, Ph.D., of CIT. Using protein sequencer technologies, researchers will synthesize new high-affinity PET agents on protein chips that produce the probes eight times faster than conventional methods.

Labs at the University of North Carolina, the University of California, San Diego, Northwestern University, and a collaboration between Emory and Georgia Tech University in Atlanta will create new focal points for nanotechnology and associated molecular imaging discoveries, according to their principal investigators.

The Carolina Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence in Chapel Hill will focus on the fabrication of targeted nanoparticles. The Center of Nanotechnology for Treatment, Understanding, and Monitoring of Cancer at UCSD will examine the possibilities for a smart, multifunctional, all-in-one platform for tumor targeting and drug delivery.

The use of quantum dots as an MR contrast medium for breast cancer imaging is one of five research projects being pursued by the Emory-Georgia Tech Nanotechnology Center for Personalized and Predictive Oncology.