Nanotechnology research receives critical federal boost

By Kristen Holland Shear / Feb. 19-28, 2011

Nanotechnology-based materials have shown promise for both diagnosing and treating a range of medical conditions including cancer, autoimmune disease and human immunodeficiency virus, but developing a reliable way to manufacture those potentially lifesaving particles in large quantities for use in humans has remained a challenge.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has been an ardent supporter of these efforts and was instrumental in securing resources for the Department of Defense to build a laboratory to research and produce carbon-based nanoparticles and to prepare biological materials that can then be delivered to patients. She also provided critical federal support for the construction of the Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) Nanoparticle and Cell Processing Lab on the UT Southwestern campus, in collaboration with UT Dallas.

The Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, or TATRC, provided the funding.

Sen. Hutchison has supported vital federal funding over the past decade for UT Southwestern’s Advanced Imaging Research Center and for stroke and Gulf War illness research.

Dr. Mary Ellen Weber, vice president for government affairs and policy at UT Southwestern, said the latest appropriation continues Sen. Hutchison’s dedication to the medical center’s growth and success.

“This was a big commitment on her part,” Dr. Weber said. “Getting nearly $5 million for a facility that will permeate all areas of research is huge. Thanks to her efforts, this new facility will enable us to get our nanotechnology discoveries into patients faster.”

Dr. James Willson, director of UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated center in North Texas, said that having this GMP facility will provide a unique opportunity for researchers to prepare cell materials – such as the hematopoietic stem cells routinely used to treat leukemia – for use in humans. The existing GMP laboratory in the Cancer Immunobiology Center is Food and Drug Administration-approved to produce antibodies and vaccines but not cells treated with these agents.

“With this facility, we’ll be able to undertake specialized treatments of these hematopoietic cells to enhance their efficacy, be it by expanding their number so that stem cell transplants ‘take’ quicker or by eliminating some of the cells that are contaminants,” said Dr. Willson, who is also associate dean for oncology programs. “There’s no other facility on campus for preparing cell materials under GMP conditions.”

GMP facilities, which are regulated by the FDA and must be built to exacting federal specifications, are required to be sterile environments in which all manufacturing activities are isolated from any potential contaminants. These facilities remain under strict environmental control in order to assure the manufacture of sterile, potent and uncontaminated products for human therapies.

Dr. Jinming Gao, professor of pharmacology with a joint appointment in the Simmons Cancer Center, is working with Dr. Wenchuang Hu, assistant professor of electrical engineering at UT Dallas, to develop the new nanotechnology facility. They are also working to characterize the sizes and shapes of nanoparticles best suited for medical use.

Recent findings have suggested that a nanoparticle’s physical shape plays a major role in whether the drugs it carries are effective. Nonspherical shapes, such as the nanorods that are being developed by UT Southwestern and UT Dallas researchers, remain in the blood longer and have more direct surface contact with the targeted cells. The research team is one of the few using techniques developed in the semiconductor industry to shape materials into nanoparticles.

To produce these nanorods, the researchers designed a device similar to an inkjet printer. The device uses a roll-to-roll printing process in which a plastic web coated with a bioagent-filled polymer is fed into a set of rollers. One of the rollers works like a stamp, pressing into the polymer to form distinct nanoparticles. The particles solidify when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Several other projects are under way in collaboration with UT Dallas to advance nanotechnology applications, thanks in part to appropriations previously secured by Sen. Hutchison.

Dr. Ellen Vitetta, director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center, and colleagues at UT Southwestern and UT Dallas began the nanotechnology work supported by Sen. Hutchison, developing and testing a new way to kill cancer cells selectively.

The method involves attaching cancer-seeking antibodies to carbon nanotubes that heat up when exposed to an external source of near-infrared light. The team used monoclonal antibodies that targeted specific sites on lymphoma cells and breast cancer cells covalently coupled to the carbon nanotubes.

Dr. Vitetta and Dr. Rockford Draper, professor of molecular and cell biology at UT Dallas, conceived the original 2007 nanotechnology project for cancer therapies. The researchers later broadened the scope for a nanotechnology project in cellular therapies in 2008 and 2009.

“Dr. Vitetta first conceived the idea that a GMP facility for using cellular nanotherapies would give UT Southwestern a significant advantage over institutions without the capability to test rapidly the therapies in humans,” Dr. Weber said. “She recognized that this would be a campus-changing facility since this capability could be used not just for nanomedicine, but for all cell-based therapies.”

Dr. Vitetta said that “nanotechnology allows scientists to deliver tiny payloads to tumor cells, to manipulate cellular pathways in cells and to introduce genes and proteins into cells.” She and Dr. Robert Collins, director of the UT Southwestern Hematopoietic Cell Transplant Program, have carried out promising pre-clinical studies under non-GMP conditions.

“We’re very excited about the therapeutic possibilities that could result from such research,” Dr. Vitetta added.

Though nanomedicine remains in the developmental stage, Dr. Willson agreed that having a “GMP facility on campus enables us to position UT Southwestern and UT Dallas as the place to move inventions from the research labs to testing in patients.”

“Once we have an FDA-approved facility and enough proof of positive medical outcomes, we can start testing in human patients, ideally within three or four years,” he said. “If those trials are successful, we could then begin manufacturing numerous shapes almost immediately. This funding is enormously valuable in that it will help provide infrastructure for new diagnostic tools and treatments for numerous diseases.”

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Dr. Vitetta holds the Scheryle Simmons Patigian Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunobiology.

Dr. Willson holds the Lisa K. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Comprehensive Oncology