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Posted: March 27, 2008
Healing power of nanomedicine
(Nanowerk News) A chemical engineer in the emerging field of nanomedicine, Chong Cheng says creating the tools to target tumors with powerful drugs—while bypassing healthy parts of the body—is the first step in achieving a future where cancer patients don’t suffer from the worst side affects of treatments such as chemotherapy.
Although it’s a tough job fabricating nanostructures that are small enough and versatile enough to effectively transport nanomedicine, Cheng, who joined the UB faculty last fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says the mission underlying his research is really very simple—helping people who suffer from serious illness.
“It’s not easy work—it’s a challenge,” he says, “but I think targeted drug delivery will greatly improve human health. I think it’s very important research for human beings everywhere.”
And rising sales numbers from the global drug-delivery market—from an estimated $26 billion in 2000 to approximately $67 billion in 2006—appear to confirm this assessment.
“It’s also a very fast-growing area of research,” he adds. “People care about cancer—over 50 percent of the research [support] is for cancer—so this research could have great commercial significance.”
Cheng explains his research plans include tackling some of the greatest barriers preventing nanomedicine from being a viable option for anyone but the most serious cancer patients. For instance, the size of nanostructures has been a major obstacle to effective treatment, he says, noting that one of his research group’s most important goals is learning to fabricate “templates”—which are nanostructures used to transport drugs throughout the body—that are no larger than 25 nanometers, significantly smaller than the ones that have been readily produced through physical methods.
Smaller templates increase the “bioavailability” of cancer drugs, he adds, using a term that describes the percentage of medicine that actually reaches the part of the body where it’s most needed. Although nanomedicine is vastly more efficient than conventional medications, Cheng says that smaller nanostructures circulate through a patient’s system with even greater ease.
“Targeting drug delivery is a key aspect of nanomedicine research,” he says, “but it’s very hard to concentrate nanomedicine on tumor tissue since a tumor can be a very small portion of the entire human body.”
Equally important is making sure templates are biodegradable, says Cheng, noting that nonbiodegradable polymeric nanostructures, which have been used to administer targeted therapies in certain cancer patients as a last resort, are toxic over a long period of time because they accumulate in a patient’s system.
“Typically,” he says, “cancer patients need to take drugs for some years. If one can significantly decrease the toxicity of the drug, it will be a very significant advance. If we really want extended applications of nanomedicine, it’s necessary to make the templates biodegradable.”
The recipient of a doctorate in chemistry from the City University of New York and master’s and bachelor’s degrees in engineering polymer materials from Beijing University of Chemical Technology and Hefei University of Technology in China, respectively, Cheng says the fabrication of biodegradable nanostructures is an exciting new challenge for him after years studying nonbiodegradable polymer nanostructures as a doctoral student and later a postdoctoral research associate under Karen L. Wooley, a prolific scholar and researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, from 2003 to 2007.
As a chemical engineer, Cheng explains that his work at UB will concentrate on the fabrication of the nanostructure templates used to create nanomedicine, not drugs themselves. “You can conceive of it [the template] as a plane,” he says. “In order to make a plane work as a fighter, you need to have radar, missiles, everything.” Providing the expertise to equip nanostructures created in his lab with elements to detect and target cancerous cells, improve medical imaging for health care providers and administer medication will be collaborators from other fields, he says, particularly medicine and biomedical sciences. Cheng says his mission is simply to develop the most versatile and efficient vehicles to help other researchers and medical experts get the job done.
“My research lab will provide the nanostructures, but for the targeting elements, for the detection components, I need collaborations,” he says. “And I prefer to have those close research collaborations within UB.”
In addition to cultivating these research relationships—as well as establishing a lab and working with doctoral students—Cheng says his past academic year at UB has been spent teaching a graduate course on polymer thermodynamics, as well as an undergraduate course on heat and mass transfer—a subject that he says actually has many applications to targeted drug delivery.
Even before first coming to the U.S.—about 10 years before joining UB— Cheng points out he was familiar with the university through colleagues who had come here to teach and learn. In fact, Cheng says, the year after he finished his master’s degree his former thesis advisor, Hongmin Zhang, served as a visiting professor at UB under Eli Ruckenstein, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
“I think UB is a great university with a global reputation and I think that there are outstanding faculty members here,” says Cheng. “The colleagues are also very friendly, very helpful,” he adds.
A native of Anhui Province in eastern China, Cheng now resides in East Amherst with his wife, Yuanyuan Hu. The couple, who was married a little more than a year ago, is setting into the area nicely, Cheng says.