Juntao Luo PhD never imagined himself working on a cure for cancer. He had decided to be a chemist, and he set about earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and then a doctorate in polymer chemistry and physics from NanKai University in China. His training in material science laid a solid foundation for the research he does today in nanomedicine.
He completed post-doctorate work in a biomaterials lab in Canada, working with biomatierals known as polymers. Later, at the University of California at Davis, Luo’s mentor challenged him: Could he create a vehicle made of polymer to transport chemotherapy drugs directly into solid tumors?
Luo, 36, joined Upstate’s pharmacology faculty in 2011 and continues his research on the smaller-than-microscopic transport vehicles known as nanoparticles – a promising new way to shrink cancerous tumors without damaging healthy cells around them.
Carrying proven cancer drugs, the nanoparticles are injected into the bloodstream like any injectable medication. They are programmed to travel through blood vessels to solid tumors. Scientists are designing nanoparticles made of various materials, in search of the best combination. Nanoparticles made of lipids, for instance, were invented 10 years ago but are too large to diffuse into tumors efficiently and are removed from the body too rapidly.
The nanoparticles Luo works with are made of polymer. He says they have been effective against solid tumors in laboratory animals. In one study at UC Davis, the size of tumors shrank for days after injection, and one group of the tumors in the study subject disappeared entirely.
Encouraged by those exciting results, Luo is optimistic that his laboratory work can be translated into a cancer treatment after the Food and Drug Administration approves testing in humans. Because these nanoparticles rely on drugs that are already proven safe and effective, he expects the approval process will not be as lengthy as it would for a new drug.
Polymers are made of molecules strung together. How a particular polymer behaves is determined by what molecule structures are included and in what order. Traditional polymer materials vary in size and don’t combine well with other materials. However, Luo has invented a way to engineer the structure of a polymer nanoparticle to suit the medication it will carry.
“The general concept is that one nanoparticle may not be able to deliver different types of medications. You may need to design a nanoparticle for each medication,” Luo says. He adds that nanoparticles may need to be further tailored to individual patients, who may respond differently to medications depending on the stage and markers of their cancer.
Polymer nanoparticles carry the medication to the tumor site within 24 hours. Remnants of the nanoparticles are flushed from the body through the kidneys. While they are designed to work most effectively in solid tumors, nanoparticles may also help fight some cancers of the blood, Luo says.
Luo says some types of nanoparticles show promise in penetrating the blood-brain barrier, which could lead to new methods of treating cancer in the brain. Recent studies have shown that polymer nanoparticles can be used in the treatment of inflammation and Parkinson’s disease.
Luo’s work in the field of cancer research allows him to contribute exciting, if poignant advances. He was a college student majoring in chemistry in 1997 when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy before she died in 2003. “At that time, I had no idea about cancer treatment,” Luo says. “If I had the knowledge I have right now, at least I could have given her hope.”