Public Release: 

Halas wins innovator award in fight against breast cancer

DOD award provides $3M to study diagnostic and therapeutic uses of nanoshells

Rice University

HOUSTON -- July 9, 2003 -- The Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program has chosen Naomi Halas of Rice University to receive the prestigious Innovator Award for ongoing research into novel ways to use nanotechnology to diagnose and treat breast cancer. The award includes a four-year, $3 million grant, which Halas will use to develop new noninvasive methods of detecting and eradicating tumors.

Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of chemistry, is the inventor of metal nanoshells, a novel type of nanoparticle with "tunable" optical properties.

The Innovator Award is administered by the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. First presented in 2001, the award provides accomplished and visionary scholars with the funding and freedom to pursue creative, potentially breakthrough research that could ultimately accelerate the eradication of breast cancer. The award is explicitly designed to encourage the most creative individuals in all areas of research to pursue innovative and novel approaches that may significantly contribute to the conquest of breast cancer.

"During recent years, researchers have learned a great deal about the basic science of breast cancer, which has opened the door for the use of novel technologies for diagnosis and therapy," said Colonel Kenneth A. Bertram, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. "Dr. Halas' nanoshell technology offers just that kind of opportunity, and the team she has assembled to develop it is an impressive, multidisciplinary group that includes physicists, biologists and engineers."

The research team includes Jennifer West, associate professor of bioengineering and chemical engineering; Rebekah Drezek, assistant professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering; and Renata Pasqualini, associate professor of genitourinary medical oncology and cancer biology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"Wonderful technological advances have allowed doctors today to detect breast cancer sooner and treat it more effectively, and yet still 40,000 women died in the United States last year from breast cancer, and another 1 million aren't even aware they have it," said Halas. "Nanoshells offer a completely new technological approach that we hope will make breast cancer easier to diagnose, less painful to treat, and ultimately, more survivable."

Only slightly larger than molecules, nanoshells are layered colloids that consist of a nonconducting core covered by a thin metal shell. By changing the thickness of the shell, Halas' team can precisely tune a nanoshell's electric and optical properties.

Halas and West have successfully attached proteins to the surface of nanoshells -- including proteins that bind only with tumor cells. Since the shells can be "tuned" to react to near infrared light, which passes harmlessly through the body, they can be used as tumor-seeking nanoparticles. After they are injected into the patient, a doctor would shine a low-power light at the patient. The nanoshells would give off a signal in response, and anyplace there was a tumor, the doctor would "see" a cluster of nanoshells. By increasing the power of the laser, the doctor could heat the nanoshells just enough to destroy the tumor without harming any healthy tissue nearby.

Using nanoshells to detect and treat breast cancer offers the following specific advantages over current standards of care:

* earlier detection -- nanoshells could increase imaging resolution enough to provide a diagnosis six to seven years earlier than current methods.

* more detailed imaging -- nanoshells can provide increased biochemical information about tumors, allowing doctors to perform non-invasive biopsies.

* fast, noninvasive imaging -- nanoshell imaging won't require breast compression or ionizing radiation, so it will be safe and comfortable for patients.

* integrated detection and treatment -- in a single visit, nanoshell technology could be used to locate a tumor, provide real-time information about the type of cells in the tumor, and non-surgically destroy the tumor without harming healthy tissue.


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