UMass Amherst team makes cancer ‘research breakthrough’

  • An exterior view of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst is shown Oct. 21, 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2021 5:35:06 PM

AMHERST — Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered a mechanism for more effectively delivering medical treatment to specific cells, representing a possible breakthrough in cancer treatment.

The research team at the university’s Center for Bioactive Delivery, based in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, has managed to engineer a nanoparticle they say could revolutionize the way cancer-fighting drugs are delivered to specific cells. In a study published in the peer-reviewed journal of the German Chemical Society, Angewandte Chemie, the scientists explained that the nanoparticle combines two different approaches to delivering treatment to cells.

“I think this is a significant breakthrough and it is a new approach to safer drugs for some really incurable, really difficult to cure diseases,” said Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan, UMass chemistry professor and interim head of biomedical engineering at UMass.

In a press release, the researchers explain there are two promising new treatments that involve the delivery of cancer-fighting drugs to cells: biologics and antibody-drug conjugates, or ADCs.

“What our team has done is to combine the advantages of biologics and ADCs and address their weaknesses,” Khushboo Singh, a chemistry department graduate student and one of the study’s lead authors, said in a statement. “It is a new platform for cancer therapy.”

Biologics such as protein-based drugs, the researchers say, can directly substitute for a malfunctioning protein in cells. What that means in practice is that they have less serious side effects than those associated with traditional chemotherapy.

However, because of their large size, biologics are unable to get into specific cells. ADCs, meanwhile, can target specific malignant cells with microdoses of drugs, although they can carry only a limited payload.

That’s where the scientists’ new approach comes in. The nanoparticle the team engineered is called a “protein-antibody conjugate,” or PAC. Thayumanavan said the antibodies in those PACs act like the address on an envelope, and the cancer-fighting protein is like the contents of the envelope.

“The PAC allows us to deliver the envelope with its protected treatment to the correct address,” Thayumanavan said in the press release. “So, safer drugs are delivered to the right cell — the result would be a treatment with fewer side effects.”

Thayumanavan said pancreatic cancer is one of the diseases the team are hoping this new approach could treat.

“Life expectancy is really low with pancreatic cancer,” Thayumanavan explained. “We’re trying to figure out if this strategy could be the breakthrough we need in order for us to treat some really difficult cancers, like pancreatic cancer, for example.”

Bin Liu, another of the paper’s lead authors and a chemistry graduate student at the university, said the research could extend beyond cancer therapies to “all sorts of genetic diseases, or really any abnormality that occurs inside a human cell.”

However, though the breakthrough is exciting, Thayumanavan said that the research will now move beyond the petri dish and into animal models before trials in humans can go forward.

“While we are really happy about where we are today, we also know we have a long way to go before we can make a real impact in people’s lives,” he said. “I will be a lot happier when we reach the finish line.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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