Tumor Trap

Novel Treatment Stops Cancer

Biomedical Engineering Department Studies Attract NIH Funding to Advance Research

Removing a cancerous tumor is only one-tenth of the job. Tracking cancerous cells to the points where they have metastasized and delivering immune-boosting substances to those locations takes a sleuth like David Zaharoff.

“If you can get the patient to develop an immune response against cancer, I don’t think you need chemotherapy anymore.”
– David Zaharoff

Bold words. And perhaps all the more surprising since they come from an engineer, the first ever to have worked in the tumor immunology and biology lab at the National Cancer Institute.

David Zaharoff is director of the University of Arkansas Laboratory of Vaccine and Immunotherapy Delivery. In recent experiments, his team eradicated bladder tumors in mice. They gave the mice a combination of substances — chitosan and Interleukin 12 —  that produced an immune response.

Since coming to the University of Arkansas in 2009, Zaharoff has received more than $3 million in state and federal competitive grants, including recent awards totaling nearly $2 million from the National Cancer Institute, to continue his work.

Today, he and scientists in his lab are refining this initial discovery to develop a drug that a pharmaceutical company can shepherd through clinical trials and commercialize. In addition to the chitosan/Interleukin-12 package, researchers in Zaharoff’s lab work with biopolymers, hydrogels and other biomaterials that produce an immune response.

One project is focused on developing a post-surgical “vaccine” to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. “Metastasis, not the primary tumor, kills about 90 percent of cancer patients,” says Zaharoff. “Our work has the potential to significantly reduce this percentage.”

Once developed, this type of therapy would be “personalized,” says Zaharoff, because the vaccine would consist of cancer cells taken from the patient’s excised tumor. These cells would then be isolated and inactivated before being reintroduced into the patient, taking with them cytokines to stimulate immune responses.

Zaharoff, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is collaborating with Suresh Kumar, associate professor of biochemistry, to develop new molecules and biopharmaceuticals that enhance a patient’s immune response against cancerous tumors. Kumar specializes in protein biochemistry. Zaharoff focuses on delivery. The goal of this project, for which they recently received $1.5 million from the National Cancer Institute, is to help clinicians attack hidden metastatic tumors and prevent cancer recurrence.