College receives $12.8-million grant for cancer research

The National Cancer Institute named Dartmouth a Center of Nanotechnology Excellence on Friday, awarding researchers a $12.8-million grant that will fund large-scale research on nanotechnology treatments for cancer, intended to cause fewer side effects than current treatments. The research could potentially lead to a "cure" for a range of cancers, according to Ian Baker, a professor at the Thayer School of Engineering and the research program's director.


The designation came after an effort by the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, the Thayer School, Dartmouth Medical School and the College Provost's office to advance research into cancer nanotechnology, NCCC Director Mark Israel said.


"When the government decided to fund nanotechnology research centers, we were well-placed to apply [for the designation]," he said.


Several other cancer centers were also awarded the designation, but their names have not been announced, Israel said.


The technology aims to combine nanoparticles with a magnetic field similar to that used in magnetic resonance imaging technology to destroy tumors without producing significant side effects, which current cancer treatments currently do, Jack Hoopes, a project leader and professor at DMS and the Thayer School, said.


Although some side effects are still possible, the technology is not potentially poisonous like other cancer treatments, Steven Fiering, a professor at DMS and a researcher in the program, said.


"The thing that's quite interesting about these nanoparticles is we know they're innocuous," he said. "They're not harmful."


Researchers have worked with similar technology for at least five years, primarily testing its effectiveness on mice and other animals, Hoopes said.


"In 20 years' experience, I haven't seen other drugs or cancer treatments as active as nanotechnology," DMS research professor Eugene Demidenko said. "I was very shocked to see we can treat tumors just like that."


The research program will involve four separate projects and three supporting "cores," or coordinating institutions, that will examine how nanotechnology can be used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, Baker said.


"This is a large process that builds on work that's been going on here," he said. "There are various parts of the project."


Collaboration between researchers will be an important part of the program, Israel said, pointing to work with the Thayer School involving tumor imaging and oncological surgery.


"All of the individual projects represent highly technical areas of expertise that are needed to achieve a single goal," he said. "This project relies on very extensive interaction from the get-go."


Such collaboration will make research more effective, according to Fiering, who explained that researchers will be able to learn from each other and that individual projects may benefit each other.


"You have the intellectual and the technical, and between it you get more than if I were just working on it myself," he said.


Demindenko worked with Hoopes in recent years developing treatments and led statistical analysis in the research program.


The grant money will allow such research to increase in scale and "improve our precision," Demindenko said.


The increased funding is essential to the larger project's existence, Baker said.


"This is really the first major infusion of money that we've had into this work at Dartmouth," he said.


It is unclear when the technology could translate into human cancer treatments, although researchers said they intend eventually to bring the technology into clinical trials. The grant does not allow for human treatments to be conducted, but Hoopes said that researchers will apply for a second grant to enable such progress.


"We're not going to wait until the grant is over to try and treat patients," he said, noting that the trials on humans will begin once they are deemed safe and researchers can obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration.


It is necessary, however, for researchers to conduct extensive trials on animals before the technology can be applied to humans, Demidenko said.


"The difference between animal and human studies is, in human studies we cannot afford to make a mistake," he said. "This is a very essential and important step before we go to [clinical trials.]"


The technology would likely be used along with other treatments in initial clinical trials, Fiering said.


"There's a definite trend in cancer therapy towards combining things," he said. "It definitely seems like there's [more efficacy] if you can treat the cancer in a variety of ways."


The grant will likely increase the potential for future work in cancer treatments, Israel said.


"Absolutely, this will attract not only attention but also opportunities for collaboration," he said, noting that the NCCC "is already a big national player."


The grant also includes important funding for educational purposes, Baker said.


"There is a significant education outreach program with this," he said, explaining that efforts will seek to teach both the public and other researchers.