Science & Tech

Engineering Nanomedicine For Noninvasive Cancer Therapy

A Texas A&M team will research noninvasive infrared light to treat glioblastomas.
By Alleynah Cofas, Texas A&M University College of Engineering December 21, 2020

glioblastoma illustration
A team of researchers led by Shiren Wang received a Texas A&M X-Grant for research on photothermal therapy to treat glioblastoma.

Texas A&M Engineering


Glioblastoma multiforme, or glioblastoma, is the most common cancerous brain tumor originating fully in the brain, and never spreading outside of brain tissue. Although a glioblastoma is common, it’s a very aggressive tumor that currently has no known cause and no known cure.

A team of researchers led by Shiren Wang, associate professor in the Wm Michael Barnes ’64 Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Texas A&M University, received a Texas A&M X-Grant for research on photothermal therapy to treat glioblastomas. This research topic was one of eight topics chosen out of 142 submissions. The eight proposals will share a total of $7 million in funding over three years, with Wang’s initiative being awarded $1.275 million.

A glioblastoma has tentacles that stem from the mass of the tumor and spread throughout the brain, so even when a patient has an operation, it is almost impossible to remove the tumor in its entirety. All glioblastomas are classified as stage IV tumors because of the abnormal cell makeup and how quickly they can appear. A glioblastoma is also difficult to operate on because it is indistinguishable from healthy brain tissue, making smaller tumors inoperable.

Current treatments include chemotherapy or radiation therapy, but these treatments, at best, only keep the tumor from growing, and a glioblastoma is often resistant to these treatments. The average life expectancy of a patient with a glioblastoma is approximately 14 months, with a five-year survival rate of 5.6%.

The photothermal therapy that Wang is researching uses a noninvasive infrared light used to smartly ablate the brain tumor tissues. With the use of this infrared light, coupled with smart gold/peptide nanoparticles, surgeons will be able to remove the unhealthy cells without damage to the healthy ones.

The smart gold/peptide nanoparticles are given intravenously, which then assist the infrared light in providing a localized site to effectively show the tumor against healthy brain tissue because of tumor microenvironment-induced light response.

“The particles will stay in both the normal cell and the tumor cell, but in the tumor cell the nanoparticles were responsive to the light. In this case, we can selectively remove the tumor,” Wang said.

The infrared light heats up to around 46 degrees Celsius to burn the tumor in approximately five minutes.

“You don’t know which cell is which. It makes (the tumor) difficult to identify, you cannot label it, but you do not want to remove brain matter by mistake,” Wang said. “In another part of the body, like the lung or if you are dealing with breast cancer, you can cut the tumor out and it’s not as difficult to identify. But in the brain, it is a much bigger deal. If the cut you make is wrong, the patient will lose some kind of brain function.”

Wang said there are two main drivers behind his initiative: to improve the survival rate of individuals diagnosed with glioblastoma, and pain reduction to improve quality of life.

Individuals diagnosed with glioblastoma currently have a very low survival rate because of the recurrence of the tumor. With this initiative the survival rate will improve significantly, and there are less prescription pain killers involved.

“It is impossible to completely remove the tumor by surgery. This is noninvasive, and can improve the life quality and reduce the pain for the patient,” Wang said. “We can reduce the recurrence of the tumor,  and as a result, the survival chances will be significantly improved.”

The transdisciplinary team from Texas A&M also includes:

  • Zi Jing Wong, Department of Aerospace Engineering
  • Karen Wooley, College of Chemistry
  • Fadi Khansawneh, College of Pharmacy
  • Roland Kaunas, Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Robert Tsai, Institute of Biosciences and Technology
  • Jun Zou, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

About the X-Grants Program

The X-Grants Program is an initiative by Texas A&M to bring faculty and researchers together across disciplines. As part of the President’s Excellence Fund, the aim is to introduce creative ideas and research to address important issues in our modern-day world spanning from cancer therapy and treatment to agriculture. The commitment is $100 million over 10 years to fund faculty research.

This article by Alleynah Cofas originally appeared on the College of Engineering website.

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