‘Golden’ Opportunity

Researchers at Stevens and Hackensack Meridian Health have developed a drug delivery system using gold nanoparticles to target cancer tumors with great precision and reduced side effects. 

Researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology are developing novel cancer treatments based on ultrasmall particles of the precious metal. Measuring just several ten-billionths of a meter in diameter, these gold nanoparticles can precisely target malignant cells while sparing healthy cells, thus reducing the unpleasant side effects of standard chemotherapy and radiation. 

“Gold has remarkable properties that make it an ideal vehicle for cancer treatment,” says Professor Hongjun Wang, the director of the Semcer Center for Healthcare Innovation at the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science who has led research efforts in this area for nearly two decades. “We have been very active in identifying multifunctional yet efficient nanocarriers and we are seeing our work truly pay off.” 

Chemically inert and nontoxic, gold does not itself serve as the cancer-killer. Instead, gold acts as a means of delivering potent drugs or, after exposure to light, heating cancer cells in a highly targeted manner. 

Using standard laboratory equipment, the Stevens researchers have developed a novel fabrication process that forms gold particles with suitably large pores, or holes, wherein molecules of medicine can be loaded and stored. In a recent study, published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, the researchers teamed with Hackensack Meridian Health in placing an experimental anticancer drug into these gold nanoparticles. They then further weaponized the nanoparticles as cancer-seekers by encapsulating them with hyaluronic acid, a biomolecule to which certain kinds of cancer cells, such as those of lymphoma, readily bind. 

When the drug-carrying gold nanoparticles were administered to mice, tumors in the rodents shrunk significantly. Furthermore, the mice showed no signs of toxicity or evidence of the anticancer drug freely floating in their blood, revealing the pharmaceutical payload had safely reached its intended target. 

Because the gold nanoparticles are so stable, they could remain circulating in the bloodstream for far longer than other chemotherapeutic agents — potentially opening the door to reducing the frequency of current medication regimens, for instance from daily to weekly or even monthly, Wang says. 

Golden Light 

The promise does not end there. Other ongoing work by the Stevens researchers centers on how gold nanoparticles, after attachment to cancer cells, can be heated up inside the body by simply shining harmless infrared light through patients’ skin. The upshot: selective “cooking” of tumors, while avoiding collateral damage to healthy tissue, in contrast to imprecise radiation treatment. 

This cancer cell affinity and responsiveness to light also means that gold nanoparticles can be utilized in medical imagery to “light up” cancer cells, helping clinicians visualize tumors and surgeons know where to cut during tumor removal. 

Moving forward, Wang and his colleagues look forward to developing the framework further for testing in humans. “We’ve come a long way and are nearly there in delivering real benefits to cancer patients and their loved ones,” says Wang. 

— Adam Hadhazy

Research Briefs 

$1M for High-Performance Computing 

Thanks to then-Rep. Albio Sires, NJ-8, Congress has awarded Stevens nearly $1 million to enhance high-performance computing resources to support leading-edge initiatives in critical areas such as artificial intelligence, flood prediction and fintech. The $960,000 allocation was included in the Fiscal Year 2023 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill signed into law in December 2022. 

These enhanced resources will boost the Stevens Flood Advisory System, which provides street-level resolution, four-day prediction of storm surge levels and coastal flooding along the shores of New Jersey and New York State. 

The computing will also support research in other critical areas, such as by the university-led Center for Research toward Advancing Financial Technology — which develops fintech to forecast market crashes, ensure fairness in credit decisions and leverage quantum science and engineering — and in the sustained development of AI and big-data tools and applications in public health, engineering and environmental science. 

Brainstorming: There’s an AI for That 

Separating fact from spin can be arduous. But AI can lend a helping hand. 

Stevens Professor Jeff Nickerson, working with researchers at Columbia, Syracuse and Northwestern universities, tapped AI to develop AngleKindling to help reporters ideate and brainstorm. The AI can sift through a press release and suggest unexpected story lines, new ideas and relevant questions — plus a high-quality reading list for background — in seconds. 

To create the AI, the team observed a panel of professional journalists as they worked to ideate and report stories. Then, using those insights, they trained large-language models such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Evaluation by other journalists using the system confirmed the AI suggests more interesting ideas, and saves more time, than similar existing tools.