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Jonathan Lovell

Winner of an NIH Early Independence Award, Jonathan Lovell, PhD, likens a nanoballoon to a submarine carrying a cargo of anti-cancer drugs.

Researcher Tests Nanoballoons for Anti-Cancer Applications

Published October 7, 2013

A novel nanotechnology study by Jonathan Lovell, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, will refine a drug delivery method using nanoballoons, also known as liposomes.

“Nanoballoons are tiny submarine-like vessels that, when struck by a laser, can deliver super-concentrated doses of chemotherapeutic drugs to cancer cells.”
Jonathan Lovell, PhD
Assistant professor of biomedical engineering

The goal is to improve cancer treatment by delivering highly concentrated doses of chemotherapeutic drugs directly to cancerous cells.

Lovell has already proved the concept in vitro and plans to test it in animals in about a year. Human trials could start within five years.

Lovell received $1.9 million from the National Institutes of Health for his five-year project — one of 15 Early Independence Awards granted nationally for high-risk, high-reward research.

Tiny, Submarine-Like Carrier Targets Tumor

The drug-carrying nanoballoons are made of the organic compound porphyrin and phospholipid, a fat similar to vegetable oil.

Drugs are encapsulated in nanobubbles roughly 10,000 times thinner than human hair.

When the nanoballoons reach cancer cells, Lovell explains, they can be popped open with a red laser, releasing the drugs directly at the cancer site.

When the laser is turned off, the nanoballoons close, taking in proteins and molecules that might induce cancer growth and metastasis.

After treatment, the nanoballoons could simply be retrieved from the body through a blood draw or biopsy.

Advantages Over Standard Chemotherapy

Chemotherapeutic drugs, such as doxorubicin and epirubicin, are now typically delivered intravenously and are usually diluted by the time they reach cancer cells.

As the drugs travel through the body, they interact with bone marrow, blood and other body systems, often leading to immunosuppression, anemia, hair loss and other unwanted consequences of treatment.

With its pinpoint delivery mechanism, the nanotechnology could allow drugs to be more effective. Simultaneously, encapsulating the drugs in nanobubbles could reduce difficult side effects.

The nanotechnology also provides a “chemical snapshot” of the tumor’s environment, which otherwise would be very difficult to assess, Lovell notes. This could provide a better understanding of the disease itself.

Cross-Disciplinary Research Addresses Critical Issues

Major NIH support for this project “recognizes the University at Buffalo’s commitment to develop a world-class, cross-disciplinary biomedical research community focused on tackling complex medical and scientific issues,” says Michael E. Cain, MD, vice president for health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“The grant is a clear indication that UB’s long-term strategic plan to invest in biomedical research is working,” adds Cain, who also is a professor of medicine and biomedical engineering.

“Biomedical engineering promises to not only address pressing issues that affect our quality of life but also underpin the region’s dynamic medical devices economy,” he says.

“This award will enable UB to continue what it does best: conduct groundbreaking research that serves society while educating the leaders of tomorrow,” notes Liesl Folks, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and an internationally recognized expert in nanotechnology and magnetism.

UB Vibrant in Biomedical Engineering

A joint effort between its nationally ranked medical and engineering schools, UB’s Department of Biomedical Engineering launched in 2008. This fall, 217 undergraduates and 29 graduate students are enrolled.

Albert H. Titus, PhD, professor and chair of the department, calls biomedical engineering “one of the fastest growing and vibrant fields of research.”

“The demand for students with biomedical engineering backgrounds continues to increase in Buffalo and nationwide,” he says.