Posted September 10, 2013
Paula Hammond, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research
The OCRP Teal Innovator Award supports a visionary individual, highly recognized in her field, to apply her most creative vision to ovarian cancer research or patient care. By bringing in talented researchers who are principally outside of, but not exclusive of, ovarian cancer, the program hopes to significantly impact the field through the investigator's research, their agreement to mentor a designated junior scientist in ovarian cancer research, and their ambassadorship in the community towards the elimination of the disease. Dr. Paula Hammond was recently selected by the DoD OCRP for this award in fiscal year 2012, and offers her vision and interest in ovarian cancer research:
Nanotechnology and Medicine
One of the trademarks of ovarian cancer is the tendency of women to have recurrent tumors that are highly resistant to standard therapies. While scientists learn the genetic signals that are involved in the survival of these cancer cells, we still need to develop ways to target these cellular processes. A strong potential candidate is short interfering RNA (siRNA), which can block very specific genes that enable cancer but is difficult to deliver directly to tumors and is toxic at higher doses.
As a chemical engineer with a focus on polymers and materials science, I am inclined to think about how nanomaterials can be designed for specific functions. A few years ago, I joined the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, an effort that brings together engineers across fields in a single facility to work alongside cancer cell biologists, addressing the complex challenges of cancer, and have since learned a great deal about cancer cell biology and the tumor microenvironment from interactions with colleagues. My research group has recently examined methods of assembling materials that are inspired by nature. For example, we can take advantage of electrostatic interactions by building nanolayer films that consist of alternately positively and negatively charged polymers. We can generate nanoparticles in much the way a pearl forms around a particle of sand in an oyster, by starting with a core that contains a specific drug, and then "wrapping" siRNA, which is very negatively charged, with positively charged polymers around the core. In this way, we can actually incorporate a large amount of siRNA in very thin layers, so that large amounts of siRNA can be delivered to cells in single nanoparticle packages. Using this approach, a chemotherapy drug such as cisplatin can reside in the core of the nanoparticle and can be released after the genetic pathways that cause drug resistance are shut down by siRNA, thus leading to a "one-two punch" approach to tumor therapy. We can design these nanoparticles to bind directly to tumor cells, lessening the significant and sometimes debilitating side effects caused by toxicity in healthy cells.
I am extremely excited and honored to have the opportunity to focus on ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is a major killer of women across a broad range of ages and backgrounds, remaining elusive with little or no breakthrough to address the aggressive growth and recurrence of resistant cancer. During the past few years of my research career, I have become highly motivated, both intellectually and personally, to tackle the very real scientific challenges presented by ovarian cancer. I believe we are poised for major advancements in this field, if we can merge the biological and medical knowledge gained on the genomic nature of the disease, with an effective way to deliver more complex therapies that strategically combine genetic therapies with traditional chemotherapy and inhibitors. I have witnessed the devastating side effects of cancer treatment for advanced stage disease and believe that new therapeutic approaches must combine clever biologically informed therapies while eliminating or lowering the potential for side effects in the patient. I envision using a deeper understanding of cell biology and the pathology of ovarian cancer to generate biologically intuitive drug delivery systems that will be tailored to address the challenges in ovarian cancer treatment.
I plan to take my sabbatical year in 2013 and will participate in research meetings and symposia with a focus on ovarian cancer to establish new connections with both clinical researchers and patients, aiming to broaden our work with new clinical perspectives. I also plan to work with collaborators at Dana-Farber to launch a program with local advocates acting as a panel to guide aspects of our work and to reach out to regarding our use of nanomedicine. I truly seek to develop translational methods of delivering siRNA and siRNA/chemotherapy drug combinations as a highly effective treatment for advanced serous ovarian cancer. If successful, we will be able to not only more completely eradicate tumors upon first treatment, but should be able to prevent or significantly decrease the incidence of recurrence in ovarian cancer patients while reducing toxicity.