George Mason University (in Fairfield Virginia) has a motto – “Where Innovation is Tradition.”
During this radical technological revolution, it is inspiring to see this top-tier university keeping pace with the fierce competition in the medical field with a recent press release that is so exciting I almost hesitate to share it.The reason being, so many times there are people in power who have personal reasons for not wanting the full extent of the Lyme epidemic revealed due to their own ambition or previous statements that were made in such a way that it is hard to say, “I was wrong.” (Even if the resulting damage to the pride of certain doctors could actually save lives and alleviate suffering…no matter.)
Up until now, these powerful doctors have had the combined strength to keep the doors closed on revealing research that would undermine their previous authority, but with more celebrities, politicians, wealthy businessmen (and women) media-feeding sensational stories about young children who have had terrible pain – physical, emotional and psychological – all which could have been avoided…well, there is a lot if anger, especially in endemic areas where it is common to find multiple family members and multiple families on a given street with every degree of Lyme disease from a mild early case to acute early cases and every kind of chronic case with multiple co-infections that you can imagine (the truth is there is no way you could possibly imagine a long term chronic case of neurological Lyme disease with three or four co-infections making everything worse.)
The heroine of our story is Allesandra Luchini, a young researcher who came to George Mason in 2005 on a grant from the Italian National Health Service to study ways to detect molecular signs of cancer. Some diseases, early on, release faint hints of their presence into our bodily fluids.
These “biomarkers” are ephemeral—our enzymes chew them up within minutes, so they’re undetectable in most lab tests. If doctors had a way to catch and stabilize those biomarkers, they could detect diseases more quickly and begin treatment at a stage when the chances of recovery were much higher.
When Alessandra Luchini was a girl growing up in Italy, she visited the Museo Galileo in Florence, where she saw the telescope that Galileo Galilei had invented four centuries before, in 1610. She was struck by its simplicity. with a just a couple of pieces of curved glass, anyone could see whole new worlds.
In 2008, Luchini’s solution to the “biomarker” was to build a nanoparticle trap. The concept, like Galileo’s telescope, is simple: “It’s like a net for catching very small fishes,” Luchini says. The spherical nanoparticle, which took two years to perfect, uses hydrogel as its backbone.
Inside, a crisscrossing polymer net holds bait, such as acid or dye, which chemically attracts various biomarkers. when lab technicians mix the nanoparticle in with a fresh blood sample, it traps the biomarkers and protects them from enzymes.
The sample can then be tested at leisure. So far, Luchini has used nanoparticle traps to produce an early diagnosis of infectious diseases such as Lyme disease and tuberculosis. (The traps can also reveal the presence of human growth hormone in urine, and thus offer a novel way to reveal illegal doping by athletes.) She and her team are also working on nanotraps to find the skin-cancer biomarkers that exist in a person’s sweat.
This nanoparticle captures, concentrates, and preserves cancer and other disease markers in a single step. Luchini’s breakthrough technology, which is still in the research and development phase, has been used in several different clinical tests over the past few years, and the results are promising – and very rewarding.
In its October issue, Popular Science, one of the countries largest scientific publications annually names the top scientists under the age of 40, whom they dub the “Brilliant 10.” Luchini learned last summer that she had been selected for her work with Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM).
“Dr. Luchini’s nanoparticles have revolutionary potential to improve the diagnosis of early-stage cancer and infectious disease,” says Lance Liotta, codirector of CAPMM who nominated Luchini for the award. “This could reduce suffering and death for millions.”
uchini originally came to Mason on a fellowship sponsored by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (the Italian equivalent of the National Institutes of Health [NIH]), which continues to support her research. The nanoparticle projects are funded by NIH’s National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Luchini’s discovery is licensed under the name “Nanotrap” through Ceres Nanoscience, a Mason spin-off company launched to promote university-based inventions. Luchini, as codirector of science at Ceres, has overseen the use of this technology by several other research facilities as a way to discover molecules in body fluids.
This invention has enabled the discovery of a plethora of new biomarkers, which were not detectable before because of their low concentration and unstable nature.
“The nanoparticles that Dr. Luchini developed both solve and overcome many of the technical barriers that have prohibited biomarker discovery,” explains Emanuel Petricoin III, who directs CAPMM with Liotta. “Now, armed with this technology, we can envision the next five years being ones of explosive growth for the discovery of new biomarkers for early detection of diseases.”
Mason scientists have used these nanoparticles to discover diagnostic markers for breast cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma, and ovarian cancer. And while this technology was originally intended to diagnose cancer biomarkers, it has countless other uses in diagnostic and treatment settings.
Currently, this technology, also referred to as “smart hydrogel nanoparticles,” is in clinical testing for two very diverse uses: testing urine for the presence of human growth hormone (HGH), which will have a wide impact on the sports world, and testing blood or urine for Lyme disease, an early detection and noninvasive option to the current diagnostic test.
A Better, Quicker, Easier Way to Diagnose Lyme Disease
One possible use for Luchini’s hydrogel nanoparticles being investigated is a new way to test for Lyme disease, the inflammatory disorder contracted through bites from infected ticks. A clinical trial testing this possibility began this summer.
Dr. Petricoin Demonstrates the Nanotrap
The number of people in the United States afflicted by Lyme disease is growing steadily—from 10,000 reported cases in 1992 to 30,000 in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The good news is that if it is caught early, the disease usually causes only mild symptoms and can be treated easily with antibiotics.
But the current diagnostic test for Lyme disease leaves much to be desired. Luchini says it is diagnosed through clinical evaluation or serological testing. Both methods can be inaccurate and take a long time—sometimes months—to diagnose. Lyme disease, if left untreated, can cause severe pain, fatigue, arthritis, neurological problems, and other serious health issues.
“If successful, this new test will be a huge advancement in the diagnosis of Lyme disease, which is now a somewhat controversial field,” Luchini says.
Clinical testing is now under way, and her hope is that this test, which promises to return more accurate results more quickly, will eventually find its way to the marketplace with the aid of Ceres.
No “I” in Team
The ways in which these nanoparticles can be used to better diagnose and treat diseases is nearly limitless. But Luchini is quick to point out that she developed this technology as part of a team. The technology has already been the basis of fruitful collaborations with other Mason faculty such as Barney Bishop, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Charles Bailey and the scientists in the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases.
In fact, the idea for the Lyme disease diagnostic test actually came from Temple Douglas, a Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology student who Luchini mentored through the university’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program.
“This is just one example of how a student can really give new input into the direction of the research we do,” says Luchini.
At 34, Luchini is considered by Popular Science and many in her field a young scientist. Still, Luchini enjoys working with those even younger to help propel her work forward.
“Mentoring is very important to me because you really get to exchange concepts and knowledge to those who bring their own fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and new points of view,” says Luchini. “It’s really been a great experience for me.”
SOURCE: George Mason University Magazine, Popular Science, Sciencerr.com