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UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy nanomedicine researchers received a five-year grant to study whether the properties of certain nanomaterials would improve the delivery of cancer treatments to their tumor targets.

The $2.42 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund a collaborative research effort between scientists at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy as well as at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The researchers plan to study whether the use of a drug-carrying nanoparticle material they’ve designed called the core-shell nanogel can better penetrate tumors.

“The whole idea of this project is to get a fundamental basic and practical understanding of how the properties of this material, in particular, its softness, or its mechanical properties, would affect the targeting of the tumor,” said Alexander Kabanov, Ph.D., D.Sc., Mescal S. Ferguson Distinguished Professor in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, a UNC Lineberger member and director of the school’s Center for Nanotechnology in Drug Delivery.

The NIH grant was awarded through the Innovative Research in Cancer Nanotechnology initiative. The awards were given to multi-disciplinary cancer nanotechnology research projects that aim to address major barriers in cancer biology or oncology. Kabanov said the grant awarded to UNC attempts to address multiple barriers in cancer treatment.

They researchers are studying nanomaterials to potentially overcome delivery-related problems that were obstacles to translating promising small-molecule cancer therapeutics into the clinic. Specifically, the core soft-shell nanogels they will be studying are designed to be less “sticky,” which they believe can cut down on side effects to the body outside of the tumor. In addition, they believe that their properties can also be controlled to modify their distribution and tumor penetration. In addition, the researchers will be focusing their study on drug delivery to target triple negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive breast cancer type that currently lacks targeted treatments.

“This study is not designed to develop a specific cancer therapeutic agent – we are looking to make fundamental observations to address problems that can help us to make better nanotherapeutics down the road,” Kabanov said. “The question is: will the tumor penetration of the therapy be better if it’s in a material that is soft, and essentially elastic, rather than if it’s a solid particle?”

The federal grant is one of several grants recently by UNC cancer nanotechnology researchers. UNC researchers have also won a new federal grant to support the launch of a new postdoctoral training program in cancer nanotechnology research.

The awards are a testament to the strength and growth of the nanotechnology research program at the university, Kabanov said, as well as to the success of the collaborative relationship with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Kabanov was previously a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical center, and the former director of its Center for Nanomedicine and Drug Delivery.

Story by Laura Oleniacz, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center

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