National Science Challenge seed funding to explore innovative early cancer detection

Victoria University of Wellington researchers have received $255,000 in seed funding to develop new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) contrast agents for early detection of cancer and other diseases.

Dr Renee Goreham, a postdoctoral fellow in Victoria’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, is leading the project at the Victoria-hosted MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, with support from Professor Thomas Nann, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, and Professor Jeffery Tallon, from Victoria’s Robinson Research Institute.

The World Health Organisation recently predicted the number of new cancer cases will increase by 70 percent in the next 20 years, and Dr Goreham says these figures signal a clear need for improved diagnosis techniques.

“A patient undergoing an MRI takes a contrast agent, which improves the visibility of internal body structures and helps their doctor identify issues such as the presence of cancerous cells.

“The problem with the contrast agents currently in use is that they aren’t specific and have a low resolution, so it’s not easy to identify a small number of cancerous cells. This is a barrier to early detection. They’re also toxic so can cause serious side-effects for those taking them.”

The group’s research is seeking to address these issues with the development of a new era of MRI contrast agents, based on silver nanoclusters that are a non-toxic nanomaterial with both fluorescent and magnetic properties.

“The particles have both fluorescent and magnetic properties so we anticipate that the new agent would add an extra dimension to the analysis,” says Dr Goreham. “You can stain the cells and look at them under a fluorescence microscope, and you can also undertake magnetic imaging to identify precisely where in the body the cells are.”

Dr Goreham says that, in addition to better imaging and precision, the nanoparticles are non-toxic so would be better tolerated by patients and produce fewer negative side-effects.

“Given how small the particles are, the body’s immune system wouldn’t detect them as something foreign and dangerous.”

The research project will run for up to three years and is one of 10 to receive seed project funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Science for Technological Innovation (SFTI) National Science Challenge.

Victoria had three projects shortlisted for the ballot from which the 10 that will receive funding were drawn.

A second strand of the research by Dr Goreham and her team will investigate the use of exosomes, a nanoparticle released by cells in the body, which could be used to increase the concentration and intensity of the fluorescent and magnetic properties of the new agent.

“In addition to the possibility of increasing the effectiveness of the contrast agent, we could load exosomes with the nanoparticles we’re developing to cross the blood-brain barrier, which is something that has been traditionally very difficult to do. If we’re successful, it opens up possibilities for better understanding and treatment of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” says Dr Goreham.

“Until quite recently, exosomes were thought to be junk, with not much use. However, we now know that they talk to other cells, and can be loaded with DNA, and even other nanoparticles. This is quite a new area, but we think it holds a lot of promise.”

Announcing the SFTI funding, Science and Innovation Minister Hon Steven Joyce said, “The pace of technology change is accelerating so it’s important that our high-tech firms have access to the right know-how to build the sorts of innovative products that will help them to succeed in highly competitive global markets.

“These new seed projects will create new knowledge through fundamental research that will support firms to contribute to the evolution of New Zealand’s growing high-tech economy.”