Chemistry research lab at SUNY-ESF works to lessen the harsh side effects of chemotherapy

Courtesy of Christopher Nomura

Nomura and his team have worked for years to develop a safer way to deliver chemotherapy.

Christopher Nomura, the vice president of research at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is making strides to eliminate chemotherapy’s harsh side effects.

Most chemotherapeutic drugs induce nausea and hair loss because they attack a person’s cells indiscriminately, killing healthy cells as well as cancerous ones. Up until recently, there has never been a delivery system capable of targeting specific types of cancer cells.

That problem is the basis of Nomura and SUNY-ESF postdoctoral fellow Ata Pinto’s work. They found that by feeding certain fatty acids to a strand of E. coli, the bacteria would produce polymer molecules with azide groups linking to specific cell receptors. When strapped with chemotherapy drugs, these molecules effectively trick cancerous cells into ingesting the medication, destroying them from the inside, rather than systemically as they pass through the body.

Only cancer cells are killed in this new process, not healthy ones.

“If we could more specifically target a cancer cell, our hope is that we could reduce some of the dosages (of chemotherapy drugs) and still have the killing efficacy of the drug if it’s delivered more specifically to its target,” Nomura said.

The hope of Nomura’s lab is that the precision of this newfound technique — what the team refers to as a “Trojan horse” maneuver — will ease the discomfort of cancer treatment. The SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund with a grant helped finance the research for this new “Trojan horse” method.

Nomura said their new approach first involves modifying the drug-carrying particles to a size small enough to be ingested through leaks in the tumor’s blood vessels, but large enough to withstand being flushed away by the kidneys.

In this case, Nomura’s lab engineered nanoparticles that are about 70 nanometers in diameter. The nanoparticles are then imbedded with azide groups that allow them to target cancer cell receptors. That’s where “click chemistry” comes into play.

This process, which was developed by Pinto, who is part of Nomura’s team, places azide groups onto the ends of fatty acids that are then fed to the E. coli and ultimately replicated in the resulting polymers.

“The idea is that the polymer is so flexible in what we can do to it that we’re given an example of how simple the process of producing these Trojan horses has become with our process,” Pinto said.

Once an azide group is present in the polymer, it can be modified to target specific cancer cells. Pinto said “click chemistry” is innovative and markedly more efficient than techniques used elsewhere.

“The process done by other labs is lengthier,” Pinto said. “It’s much more prevalent in the literature because, generally speaking, this work has been done by engineers and not biosynthetic chemists like us.”

Nomura and Pinto started their own company last year called Alba Solutions because Nomura said the team was excited that their work could be used as a commercial product.

The lab at ESF has a partnership with Juntao Luo at SUNY-Upstate Medical University to catalyze the polymers for different types of cancers.

“We want to test whether (the team’s) nanoparticle by itself is toxic or not. That is kind of a safety issue,” Lou said.

Luo added that he wants to test the drug loading of the nanoparticle to see whether it is effective with acute cells compared to other types of cancer treatment drugs that are already being sold on the market.

Nomura said he hopes that the polymer delivery system will reopen the doors for highly effective chemotherapy drugs that were too toxic for traditional cancer targeting methods, but may be well utilized with a directed delivery system.


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