Promising Research in Chemotherapy

  A Chemical Engineering professor’s research could eventually mean a less painful experience for chemotherapy patients if the method is eventually approved for humans. BYU chemical engineering professor Bill Pitt has helped discover a new way of delivering chemotherapy using ultrasound. The procedure could reduce side effects of chemotherapy and enhance potency of anti-cancer drugs. “If the research continues to progress, and we can get it to the point where we can apply this to people, the biggest benefit is that it would reduce the side effects of chemotherapy,” said Pitt, who is the principal investigator on the project. 

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy often endure painful side effects caused by the powerful drugs as they course through their entire bodies, damaging healthy tissue and cancer cells alike. But BYU researchers are reporting in the December issue of the prestigious oncology journal “Cancer Research” that they have successfully tested a new method in laboratory animals that would concentrate and direct the action of cancer drugs on specific cancerous tissues, therefore sparing the rest of the body from harm. Their method combines two, key innovations: placing a drug in tiny molecular packages of water-soluble plastic so that the drug would not interact while passing through a person’s bloodstream, then using ultrasound (high frequency sound energy, used in sonograms to image a fetus) to release the drug from its package at the specific part of the body affected by the cancer. 

“ The idea was to put the drug inside the spherical micelle,” Pitt said. “The micelle is then a carrier, and it holds the drug inside and keeps the drug from escaping into other parts of the body.” The purpose of using ultrasound is that we can focus ultrasound where we want to focus it,” he said. 

Richard H. Wheeler, director of clinical research for the Huntsman Cancer Institute, says he believes Pitt’s research is interesting and innovative. “The use of focused ultrasound to release the packaged drug maximally within tumor tissue holds promise for the cancer patient of increasing the chance for tumor response while reducing side effects,” Wheeler said. 

The work began in 1998 when Pitt started collaborating with a friend and colleague at the University of Utah: bioengineering professor Natalya Rapoport. Together they have been studying the physics and chemistry of drug delivery using micelles. 

BYU graduate student Jared Nelson, injected doxorubicin within the plastic micelle carrier and applied various levels of ultrasound to cancer tumors growing in rats’ legs. The rat received the packaged drug in its bloodstream, so the drug was circulated throughout its body, but ultrasound was applied only to the tumors on one leg and not the other leg. The ultrasound was applied for one hour per week, just after the weekly injection of drug. The sizes of the tumors on both legs were measured and observed over the four-week experimental period. At the experiment’s conclusion, Pitt and Nelson found that the application of the drug in combination with the ultrasound significantly reduced the tumor size in the leg receiving ultrasound when compared to tumors in the other leg that were not exposed to ultrasound.

Part of Pitt’s research project was funded by a $5,000 grant from the BYU Cancer Research Center. Pitt said they need a couple million more to finish the project and they are applying for grants through the National Institutes of Health. He would like to eventually try the research on humans, possibly within three years. “It’s a slow process because we want to make sure this is safe for people,” he said.

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