Graduate student invents new cancer drug delivery vehicle

January 28, 2013 by Cecilia Elpi
Sean Hemp actively grows HeLa cell cultures in Timothy E. Long's lab.

(Phys.org)—Sean Hemp of Raleigh, N.C., a Ph.D. student in chemistry in the College of Science, is helping to invent new therapies that target genetic disease and cancer. 

Working with Timothy Long, professor of chemistry in the College of Science and part of the Virginia Tech Center for , Hemp creates polymers to deliver nucleic acid—the molecules that carry genetic information within DNA and RNA.

"Sean exemplifies a genuine inventor. He has an unbridled passion coupled with keen intellect and infectious curiosity," said Long.

Delivering foreign DNA and RNA to the body is difficult, but can serve several health benefits, especially in the case of genetic disease and cancer, according to Hemp. Effective uptake of nucleic acids allows for the delivery of genetic code that may correct malfunctioning DNA or eliminate mutating cells, such as cancer.

"The body's natural defense system quickly detects naked DNA or RNA and eliminates them," said Hemp.  "Polymers are an important part of delivering the nucleic acid and targeting only ."

Collaborating with a local biotech company, Techulon, Hemp is developing a phosphonium-based polymer for the delivery of nucleic acid. Phosphonium groups are positively charged and the are negatively charged, so the two electrostatically bind to produce a nanoparticle. This process creates a capsule in which the nucleic acid is protected by the polymer. After this binding occurs, the nanoparticle remains positively charged, making it more likely for since the cellular wall is negative.

However, a major challenge in drug delivery is avoiding damage to healthy cells.

"Most are pretty indiscriminate. They harm all cells, not just cancer cells. That's why someone undergoing chemotherapy can lose their hair," said Hemp. "The addition of targeting groups to the enables the selective treatment of over healthy cells." 

The cancer's rapid growth makes its vulnerable. The rapidly growing cells need nutrients and the inclusion of these nutrients as part of the weaponized nanoparticle allows researchers like Hemp to target only cancerous cells.

In trial studies, Hemp's team has been able to show the phosphonium polymer successfully delivers nucleic acid in a test tube. Working with Techulon, he translates this knowledge into application by preparing that polymer for in-vivo use.

Hemp has co-authored two papers which support these findings in Biomacromolecules journal: "Phosphonium-Containing Diblock Copolymers for Enhanced Colloidal Stability and Efficient Nucleic Acid Delivery" and "Phosphonium-Containing Polyelectrolytes for Nonviral Gene Delivery."

"The hope is to create the polymer. Once the drug delivery vehicle is there, researchers can change the nucleic acid and specifically tailor it to the type of cancer they are treating," said Hemp.

"Sean will surely invent the future," Long said. "His discoveries in siRNA delivery with serum stable vectors offers the chance to understand cancer treatment using unprecedented phosphorous-containing molecular structure."

Explore further: Swedish hemp farmer wins green prize

Related Stories

Swedish hemp farmer wins green prize

November 30, 2007

A Swedish hemp farmer was given an environmental prize in his local community for his efforts to fight a ban on the growing of industrial hemp.

Novel polymer delivers genetic medicine, allows tracking

October 6, 2009

Theresa M. Reineke, associate professor of chemistry in the College of Science, and colleagues in her lab at Virginia Tech and at the University of Cincinnati have developed a new molecule that can travel into cells, deliver ...

Understanding how cells respond to nanoparticles

October 28, 2010

Gold nanoparticles are showing real promise as vehicles for efficiently delivering therapeutic nucleic acids, such as disease-fighting genes and small interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules, to tumors. Now, a team of investigators ...

Recommended for you

New nanomaterial maintains conductivity in 3-D

September 4, 2015

An international team of scientists has developed what may be the first one-step process for making seamless carbon-based nanomaterials that possess superior thermal, electrical and mechanical properties in three dimensions.

Graphene made superconductive by doping with lithium atoms

September 2, 2015

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers from Germany and Canada has found a way to make graphene superconductive—by doping it with lithium atoms. In their paper they have uploaded to the preprint server arXiv, the team describes ...

Making nanowires from protein and DNA

September 3, 2015

The ability to custom design biological materials such as protein and DNA opens up technological possibilities that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. For example, synthetic structures made of DNA could one day be ...

For 2-D boron, it's all about that base

September 2, 2015

Rice University scientists have theoretically determined that the properties of atom-thick sheets of boron depend on where those atoms land.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.