Transformative NIH Grant to Support Imaging of Lung Cancer During Surgery

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If a tumor is more visible and easier to distinguish from surrounding tissues, surgeons will be more likely to be able to remove it completely. That’s the rationale behind a new $7 million, five-year “transformative” grant from the National Institutes of Health to a team of researchers from Emory, Georgia Tech and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

The grant is part of the NIH Director’s Awards Program funded by the NIH Common Fund. Shuming Nie, PhD, and his colleagues at the Emory-Georgia Tech Nanotechnology Center for Personalized and Predictive Oncology have been developing fluorescent nanoparticle probes that hone in on cancer cells. The grant will support the team’s continuing work on the nanoparticles and instruments that visualize them for cancer detection during surgery.

The project team includes May Wang, PhD, director of biocomputing and bioinformatics at the Nanotechnology Center and Sunil Singhal, MD, director of the Thoracic Surgery Research Laboratory at the Perelman School of Medicine. Nie is a professor and Wang is associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.

“At present, a significant group of patients who undergo surgery leave the operating room without a complete resection due to missed lesions,” Nie says. “Our main goals are to help surgeons distinguish tumor margins, identify diseased lymph nodes and micrometastases, and to determine if the tumor has been completely removed. Having these capabilities can be expected to make a major impact in reducing recurrence rates of lung cancer after surgery.”

The grant includes plans for tests of the nanoparticles and cancer detection instruments on dogs with naturally occurring lung tumors and a first-in-human clinical trial for patients with lung cancer at the University of Pennsylvania.

The proposed technologies could be broadly applicable to many types of solid tumors. The project includes two types of contrast agents for detecting cancer: a fluorescent dye (indocyanine green, approved for in vivo use by the FDA) conjugated to the protein albumin, and polymer-coated gold particles coupled to a reporter dye and an antibody that binds to tumor cells. The gold in the particles amplifies the signal from the dye through an effect called surface-enhanced Raman scattering.

Nie and his colleagues have developed a hand-held device called a SpectroPen that can detect both fluorescence and Raman signals. The SpectroPen combines a near-infrared laser and a detector, and is connected by a fiber optic cable to a spectrometer, computer and video monitor.

Previous research leading to the current grant was supported by a Grand Opportunities grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the NIH Director’s Office, and by the NCI Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNE) at Emory and Georgia Tech.

The award was one of 17 granted this year through the NIH Director’s Transformative Research Projects Program (T-R01), which was created to challenge the status quo with innovative ideas that have the potential to advance fields and speed the translation of research into improved health for the American public. The first group of Transformative R01 grants was funded in 2009.

Another T-RO1 grant, for $2 million over five years, was awarded to Todd McDevitt, PhD, director of the Stem Cell Engineering Center at Georgia Tech and an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, along with Coulter Department Associate Professor Johnna Temenoff, PhD, and Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering Professor Robert Guldberg, PhD. The grant will support the development of tissue regeneration therapeutics for traumatic injuries and degenerative diseases.

“The NIH Director’s Award programs reinvigorate the biomedical work force by providing unique opportunities to conduct research that is neither incremental nor conventional,” says James M. Anderson, MD, PhD, director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, who guides the Common Fund’s High-Risk Research program. “The awards are intended to catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions.”

More information on the Transformative Research Projects Award is at including information on this year's awardees

Writer: Quinn Eastman

The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Learn more about Emory’s health sciences: Blog: Twitter: @emoryhealthsci Web:


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