A cancer-sniffing molecule

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HackelAlthough many therapies exist for cancer, the disease affects different people in different ways, which can sometimes make even the most promising treatments ineffective.

Matching the makeup of one’s cancer to the therapy best equipped to stop it—an approach known as personalized medicine—drives U chemical engineering faculty member Ben Hackel, Ph.D., to do the work that he does.

“There are countless versions of cancer and each patient has their own molecular situation,” says Hackel. “We want to provide clinicians with a tool that can identify which therapies will be the most effective for each patient.”

To accomplish this, Hackel is developing a molecule that travels to a patient’s tumor and binds only to specific proteins prevalent in specific cancers. A doctor would then use a PET (positron emission tomography) scan to detect these proteins and target treatments accordingly.

A versatile technology

With Masonic support, Hackel and his team are currently engineering their molecule to find a protein called EGFR, which is common in breast and colorectal cancers.

They have seen promising results in early animal studies and are now laying the groundwork to test the technology in people. This includes working to patent-protect it and leveraging NIH (National Institutes of Health) support that will allow them to “take it the last few steps before commercialization.” Once in the clinic, the molecule would become “part of a toolkit of imaging agents that would help pinpoint the specific nature of and targets for one’s cancer.”

While Hackel is excited about the technology’s diagnostic value for breast and colorectal cancers, he says it can easily be modified for other purposes.

In the future, his team will use it to find proteins that are abundant in lung, pancreatic, and ovarian cancers. They also plan to explore its value in the initial detection of cancer.

“As engineers, we take a very modular approach,” he says. “For now, we’re making this molecule work well in targeting a particular protein, but we do research in such a way that we can take what we learn and reapply it to other proteins to expand the reach of the technology.”

Far-reaching impact

KruzikiIn addition to advancing a tool that could soon have widespread clinical use, support from the Minnesota Masons is contributing to the success of talented new chemical engineers.

The U’s Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS) department attracts some of the best students in the world. This includes graduate student Max Kruziki, Masonic beneficiary and one of the researchers responsible for developing the Hackel lab’s cancer-sniffing technology.

Kruziki joined Hackel’s lab in 2012 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. During his time with the lab, he has played a crucial role in moving the cancer-detecting molecule from idea to inception. “It’s been very fulfilling to see the project start from the bare bones of an idea and to help evolve it into a successful preclinical model,” he says.

Kruziki, who will graduate in fall 2017 with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, is passionate about “working on cutting-edge solutions to the world’s problems” and plans to pursue a career “doing research at the intersection of engineering and medicine.”

His time with Hackel and the CEMS department has been the perfect launch pad for achieving this goal.

“I knew that if I wanted to do high-quality biotech research, I would need to go to graduate school at one of the leading institutions in chemical engineering research,” he says. “Seeing that Dr. Hackel’s lab offered a chance to directly impact clinical applications in cancer research really excited me. I knew I wanted to join.”

Tremendously important

One of the most defining features of Masonic support is that it launches early—yet crucial—research that may not have otherwise moved forward.

Hackel’s study, made possible in part by the Masons’ support for the U’s Cancer Experimental Therapeutics program, is a prime example.

“Support from the Masons is tremendously important. Significant progress has been made, but more needs to be done to help cancer patients,” says Hackel. “The Masons are enabling us to get this work off the ground and transition it to the next steps so that we show efficacy in animals and optimize it for true clinical use.”