Fargo researcher pursues less toxic way to treat cancer

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Professor Sanku Mallik
North Dakota State Univeristy professor Sanku Mallik in his lab on Feb. 26, 2010, in Fargo, N.D. Sanku hopes his nanoparticle treatments could someday replace cancer treatments like chemotherapy.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A Fargo researcher is using nanotechnology to develop a cheaper, less toxic way to detect and treat cancer, and the concept could someday replace treatments like chemotherapy.

Cancer cells produce a higher level of certain enzymes than normal cells.

Sanku Mallik at North Dakota State University thinks those enzymes are a key to detecting and killing cancer cells.

Mallik has created microscopic nanoparticles that react to two of those enzymes.

While many researchers are experimenting with gold nanoparticles to deliver drugs to cancer tumors, Mallik is using nontoxic materials.

His nanoparticles are made from lipids, the same molecules found in fat. To the lipid particle, Mallik adds a peptide, a short strand of material, made of collagen, a protein found in muscles and ligaments.

The peptides attach to the nanoparticle so it looks like a ball covered with short stiff hairs. The particles can be loaded with cancer killing drugs.

Liposomes
A photo made by an electron microscope of liposomes, which make up nanoparticles.
Courtesy of Sanku Mallik

"You send them inside the body and it detects how much of the enzyme is there," Mallik said. "And depending on how much of these enzymes it detects, it will release anti-cancer drugs."

It works like this: The peptides, those short hairs on the ball, are eaten away by the enzymes created by cancer cells, which allows drugs inside the nanoparticle to leak out.

The more enzymes it finds, the faster it leaks, which means the nanoparticles don't release the drugs until they are close enough to kill a cancer cell.

Researcher Erin Nyren-Erickson said the beauty of the process is it's simplicity.

"I think it's a brilliant opportunity to take an enzyme that is naturally produced in greater quantities by many types of cancer and use that enzyme to perhaps treat the cancer," Nyren-Erickson said. "Doing so reduces a lot of the side effects you see in a lot of cancer treatments."

While the cancer cell search-and-destroy research is promising, it's still several years away from any human tests.

Cancer cell enzymes
Dark brown colors show a higher level of the enzymes from cancer cells in Sanku Mallik's lab in Fargo, N.D. on Feb. 26, 2010.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Mallik has a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Cancer Institute and is hoping for a second grant this year to expand the research.

He said the first practical application of the research might be a quick, cheap, diagnostic test for cancer.

In his lab, he loads the nanoparticles with a horseradish enzyme. As cancer cell enzymes react with the nanoparticle, a brown color appears.

"These are the metastatic breast cancer cell lines and you see a deep brown," he says. "If it is turning this deep brown, that color appears within 10 minutes. If it is this pale brown, that takes about 15 minutes."

The darker the color, the higher the level of cancer cell enzymes.

This might lead to a cancer screening tool that could be used in a doctor's office.

Erin Nyren-Erickson
Graduate student Erin Nyren-Erickson works in Sanku Mallik's lab at North Dakota State University on Feb. 26, 2010 in Fargo, N.D.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"First of all it's very quick, within 20-25 minutes," Mallik said. "Second, it will take maybe a drop of blood, a very small amount. Third, what we are trying to go after is: can we make it less costly?"

Mallik is working with breast cancer and colorectal cancer now, but he plans to expand the screening too to include pancreatic cancer.

So far, the nanoparticle screening is showing comparable results to a commonly used laboratory cancer screening tool.

Later this year, Mallik plans to team up with doctors to start testing his screening tool on blood samples from cancer patients.

He hopes it will be ready for government approval within five years.

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