University News

Nanomaterials studies advance cancer research

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Behind the purple doors of a sixth-floor Barus and Holley Lab, Thomas Webster, associate professor of engineering, works small but thinks big. His work with nanomaterials, tiny devices implanted into the human body, has led to a potential breakthrough in cancer research.

Webster, director of the University’s Nanomedicine Laboratory, has been studying and developing nanotech implants for the past 11 years. His team had created rough implants covered in tiny “nano-features” — microscopic bumps ­— to “mimic the natural roughness of healthy skin,” he said. “Current orthopedic implants are flat and smooth, but healthy skin and bone have bumps.”

Two years ago, Lijuan Zhang GS approached Webster with a radical idea — exploring how nano-features would interact with cancer cells.

“Being the adventurous person I am, I said, ‘Let’s try it,'” Webster said. It was completely new territory for Webster, but he said he was excited to see what would happen.

Within a year of research, a blink of an eye in lab time, Zhang approached Webster with results they both found fascinating. The addition of 23nm nano-features to a petri dish with both cancerous and healthy cells caused a significantly lower density of cancer cells over time.

Webster said he was pleased and intrigued by the results, but he knew the tests needed to be run at least three more times to verify any findings.

Zhang ran another trial and again found a lower density of cancer cells, but she also found something new — the nano-features inhibited the synthesis of a protein that aids in tumor growth.

The tests had initially been conducted with lung cancer cells, but later tests used breast cancer and bone cancer cells. Both reacted in the same manner — the nano-features lowered the density of cancer cells and decreased the synthesis of the tumor growth protein.

The next step is finding real-world applications, Webster said. “In order for any of this research to be useful, we need a company. We need to transition from the lab bench to a real product.”

Webster said he hopes to apply their discovery to animal models and eventually human trials. “If all goes well, a product could appear in five years,” he said.