As it stands, our bodies are quite formidable at keeping us healthy. They work overtime ensuring that we are always as healthy as possible; our bodies regularly come into contact with dangerous threats, like external pathogens or rogue cancer cells forming, but we never notice because of how quickly they are destroyed. Of course, this isn’t always successful, and as a result we may develop colds or more serious illnesses, such as cancer. The latter is often seen as a major health concern due to how difficult it can be to treat, depending on the variant. At Northeastern, work is being done on a novel approach to combat certain cancers, with a bit of inspiration from our own bodies playing an interesting role.
Debra Auguste, professor of chemical engineering, is currently working on a new targeted approach to treating triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) – a form of the disease more prevalent in younger women, with a higher rate of mortality among African American women. By using ultra-deformable liposomes (UDLs), drugs intended to combat the cancer can be applied to the source with more accuracy, increasing their effectiveness. The UDLs can be deformed in a manner that allows them to permeate small pathways to the cancer that would otherwise be impossible to reach.
When evaluating current methods of cancer treatment, a primary concern is their difficulty with reaching the targeted growths directly. Auguste’s work revolves around not only finding a novel way to deliver medicine, but to demonstrate the increased efficacy that direct application provides. “We’ve shown that we can increase localization of our therapeutics into tumors, and we’ve also shown we can decrease metastasis and growth of the tumors,” she notes. Part of this work also involves the use of alternative methods of treatment (i.e., those that don’t rely on chemotherapy). “We’ve looked into gene editing technology to show different ways we can treat TNBC without having to use chemotherapy,” she says.
The creation of this unique delivery method was inspired by own biology. The vehicle itself is a liposome, a collection of lipids that are assembled into a sphere. Auguste notes, “[Liposomes] are a really nice platform because these molecules are not covalently bound to one another, so they can diffuse and dance around the self-assembled vesicle.” Thanks to the properties of the liposome, the treatment can squeeze through to reach cancer cells that would otherwise be too difficult to reach. Auguste found inspiration for this process through observation of other cells within the human body: sperm and egg cells. In the process of insemination, a sperm cell becomes more deformable and increases the diffusivity of the lipids in the cell. This process guided Auguste’s team’s understanding of how these liposomes could work. “It helped direct where we wanted to go, and from there we were able to test them in vitro and in vivo, to see how they performed. It was exciting to see how these new biomaterial properties stack up against the conventional ones currently being used in clinics today.”
Fittingly, Auguste has found support for her research in a manner similar to how the treatment itself operates. The Center for Research Innovation (CRI) has supported her journey thus far, targeting funding that is most relevant to her work, through “identifying new funding mechanisms and in honing specific topical areas for different funding organizations.” The CRI is inspired by the work being done and is excited to support Auguste and her team on the path towards improved cancer treatments. Ultimately, Auguste predicts that this research will be useful for more cancers beyond TNBC, with potential applications for diseases where targeted treatment can be difficult to achieve. For now, Auguste looks forward to continuing this project with her partners: “The beauty of this work is really in the collaborations – it’s a big project, and that allows us to look at this from multiple different perspectives. Hopefully that will elevate the impact, as that will help us to surmise the value in multiple different disciplines.”