Researchers at Mayo Clinic, the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) and from the University of Illinois Macro and Nanotechnology Laboratory (MNTL) are collaborating in a new research theme focusing on using micro RNAs and nanotechnology to develop technologies to characterize tumors and monitor how they grow.
Brian Cunningham, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, bioengineering, and Director of the MNTL, will lead the “Omics Nanotechnology for Precision Cancer Medicine” (ONC-PM) theme. The group will work on designing tools to track material shed in the blood by tumors (biomarkers).
Illinois researchers will work with clinicians at the Mayo Clinic as well as a group at the University of Wisconsin that is one of the leaders in the biomarker identification and validation. Their goal is to help clinicians select the treatment that is most likely to work for a specific patient.
Thanks to advances in biotech instrumentation and techniques over the last decade, many new molecular targets for cancer treatment have been identified. Nonetheless, selecting optimal therapeutic regimens remains challenging. Often, there are many therapies that can slow disease progression, but they work only for some patients. Moreover, tumors can develop mutations that allow them to evade the treatment. There are no reliable predictive factors, and performing a biopsy on a tumor is invasive and expensive.
ONC-PM researchers will work on non-invasive genomic “liquid biopsies” to define disease outcomes and identify the appropriate treatment. These tests look at molecules, known as micro-RNAs (miRNAs) that tumors shed in the blood of cancer patients. The goal is to develop at-home sample collection assays that can be used to identify sub-classes of cancer and to track treatment progress.
The theme includes people working on the bioinformatics side who will mine genetic information and genomic sequencing studies to identify specific mutations and then identify the miRNAs that can be unique identifiers for a specific type of cancer. Andrew Smith (Bioengineering) is developing methods that tag individual molecules with a semiconductor quantum dot or some other type of metallic nanoparticle. Yi Lu (Chemistry) uses specially engineered nucleic acid probes that can selectively bind with the target molecule.
The patient would use a finger stick to collect a drop of blood that would be put into a cartridge and mailed to the laboratory.
“The person might not ever come into the clinic,” explained Cunningham. “The lab could perform this kind of measurement on a routine basis. What we're considering are detection approaches that would allow the testing to be done very inexpensively with a desktop-sized instrument that may cost only several thousand dollars. Rather than a genome sequencing approach that requires a million dollar instrument, we envision a lower cost method that could be performed in health clinics or local diagnostics labs.”
In addition to reducing medical costs and stress on the patient, such a tool would allow the doctor to see right away when the treatment was no longer working.
“Being able to identify when that is happening quickly and then to change to a new treatment before the tumor has grown again can be an important way to manage cancer and perhaps to treat it more like a chronic condition,” Cunningham said.
The theme will begin work this September, using facilities at both the IGB and the MNTL. Other theme members are: Rashid Bashir (Bioengineering); Timothy M. Fan (Veterinary Clinical Medicine); Auinash Kalsotra (Biochemistry); Benita S. Katzenellenbogen (Molecular & Integrative Physiology); Manish Kohli (Medical Oncology, Mayo Clinic); Zeynep Madak-Erdogan (Food Science and Human Nutrition); Olgica Milenkovic (Electrical and Chemical Engineering); Andrew Smith (Bioengineering); and Liang Wang (Pathology, Medical College of Wisconsin).