Fighting Metastatic Cancer

Stavroula Sofou

Stavroula Sofou, PhD, Rutgers

Engineering meets science

When Stavroula Sofou received her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering she never dreamed she would one day apply that knowledge to the fight against cancer. “By training, I’m a chemical engineer” said Sofou, “I learned a lot about materials; but at grad school I became motivated to find a way to apply that knowledge to something meaningful. Following grad school I went to Sloan Kettering and it was there I decided to apply my engineering knowledge to fighting cancer.” 

 With a $720,000 American Cancer Society grant in hand, Sofou began work on a nanocapsule mechanism that targets the vasculature (blood vessels) of metastatic tumors. The vasculatures are what carry blood to a tumor, allowing it to grow. If that blood supply can be cut off, the cancer will die. Nanocapsules are vehicles to carry the cancer treatment to where it needs to go. Since they are made of lipids – a naturally occurring substance in our bodies - they are non-toxic.

 “Targeted treatments are not new; but what’s different here - that I am investigating - is a new drug, a form of radiation that is injected in the blood. The non-toxic capsules will carry the radiation safely to the vasculature that feeds the metastasis, and ignore healthy vasculature. For example, in patients with metastatic disease, PSMA is commonly expressed in the vasculature of the metastasis but not in the healthy vasculature. The nanocapsule containing radiation will recognize the vasculature of the metastasis by the PSMA that is expressed, then attach and allow the delivered radioactive particles to irradiate the local region, harming only the diseased cells and sparing the healthy blood vessels.

 This is a promising concept, but much more work still needs to be done. In cell cultures this concept works very well. Now we are testing with mouse models to be sure the PSMA of the vasculature of tumors can be targeted similarly to humans. If that is the case, the next step will be to begin injecting the radiation-filled nanocapsules to test tumor growth.”
Funding from the American Cancer Society research and training program made this project possible. The highly competitive, peer review process means only the best of the best ideas receive funding. “It took me three attempts to receive my American Cancer Society grant,” said Sofou. “With each rejection I received feedback. I was able to use that feedback to improve my application to the next funding cycle. My work got better because of the peer review process.” 
The Society’s research and training program also sets Sofou up for success. She will be able to use the results of her project to apply for government funding that will take her work to the next level, bringing it closer to a clinical trial.
The American Cancer Society’s research and training program emphasizes investigator-initiated, peer-reviewed proposals, and has supported groundbreaking research that has led to critical discoveries leading to a better understanding of cancer and cancer treatment.