Collaboration Drives Auburn's Cancer Research

Rusty Arnold, Allan David and Alex Kelly Rusty Arnold (left) and Allan David consult with graduate student Alex Kelly (seated). Kelly has a B.S. in biomedical sciences from Auburn and a master’s in chemical engineering. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Drs. Arnold and Allan are his joint advisors.

September 25, 2015

An abridged version of the following story was featured in the Auburn vs. Mississippi State Football game program on Sept. 26, 2015 on page 147.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Much like the Auburn football players on the field in Jordan-Hare Stadium, Dr. Robert “Rusty” Arnold came to Auburn to be a part of a team. His team isn’t trying to win football games, though. Rather, he is looking for new and innovative ways to deliver drugs to improve the treatment of cancer.

An associate professor in Auburn’s Harrison School of Pharmacy with degrees in biochemistry and pharmaceutical sciences, Arnold came to The Plains in 2012. Part of the reason he made the move was the opportunity to collaborate with the various academic units on campus.

“My collaborations with Veterinary Medicine, Chemical Engineering and other units are critical because they allow us to integrate different expertise and conduct innovative research,” said Arnold.

With an interest in helping deliver cancer drugs and develop novel drug carriers, Arnold has been able to work with investigators all over campus.

“Right now I am working with Dr. Jayachandra Ramapuram (associate professor in the Harrison School of Pharmacy) on melanoma cancer and I am working with Dr. Valery Petrenko (professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine) to target prostate and pancreatic cancers,” said Arnold. “We also work with Dr. Alan David (assistant professor in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering) on composite nanomedicines and with Dr. Peter Panizzi (assistant professor in the Harrison School of Pharmacy) on how we can develop better diagnostic agents.”

Arnold believes when you have a group working together across several platforms, it allows them to optimize their work and develop better health outcomes for patients.

“I am a classically-trained pharmaceutical scientist that has expertise in pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, and drug delivery, and I have done cancer therapeutics,” said Arnold. “In order to develop medicines, in addition to getting the drug there and packaging it, you have to understand the pharmacology and being able to work with someone like Raj Amin and Vishnu Suppiramaniam lets me understand neurotoxicity and cardiotoxicity associated with our formulations. Working with someone like Alan David in engineering gives me someone who actually does synthesis and develops novel materials.”

Arnold’s work, in part, has to do with developing nanomedicines, a process where drugs or diagnostic agents are formulated in nanoparticles. These nanoparticles can be targeted to cancer and be used to monitor disease progression and enhance antitumor activity.

“We can use Nanomedicines to alter biodistribution of drugs, enhancing drug deposition in solid tumors and reducing non-target tissues toxicity” said Arnold. “Collaborations with Dr. Suppirmaniam (professor in the Harrison School of Pharmacy) and members of department of psychology are focused on reducing chemo-brain (neurotoxicity) associated with chemotherapy.”

Arnold admits he is no cancer biologist, but rather focuses on the delivery, dosage levels and diagnostic elements of treatment.

We try to develop nanomedicines and alternate dosing schedules, what my research comes down to is we try to better deliver drugs to target areas and minimize off-target toxicity,” said Arnold. “We can improve its distribution to target areas because we are putting them in these carriers and we can modulate the formulation so that we can control the rate and extent of release. The old mantra of cancer and many diseases is to get the most amount of drug there. But, what we are finding is it is best to get the right exposure to the tumor.”

His collaborations have not stopped with his fellow faculty members, but has extended to undergraduate students. In the absence of an undergraduate pharmaceutical sciences program, Arnold has students from disciplines including chemical engineering, animal sciences, biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology. Two of these students, chemical engineering majors Christy Pickering and Connor Dobson were recently recognized for their work and they both earned prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarships, an honor only given to about 300 students nationwide.

Pickering's research investigates a novel method to encapsulate gold nanoparticles within the aqueous core of liposomes and improve tumor targeting. These novel multifunctional gold-lipidic drug carriers may lead to an increase in efficacy and reduce toxicity of chemotherapeutic drugs used to fight cancer.

"Conducting undergraduate research has opened up my passion for pharmaceutical research and continues to challenge me,” said Pickering. “By working with Dr. Arnold, my skills and knowledge have grown tremendously, and I am excited about the opportunities available."

Dobson's research examines the synthesis of multifunctional gold nanoclusters that can be used in combination with stealth nanoparticles to improve cancer detection and drug delivery.

“I enjoy working with enthusiastic students from a variety of programs who work to solve challenges by applying what they are learning in the classroom,” said Arnold. “These students often have creative ideas and propose novel strategies to advance research projects. It is this interdisciplinary approach that we believe will lead to exciting discoveries and innovative treatments for cancer.”

Arnold credits the students for keeping him young and opening his eyes to other possibilities and approaches. He also believes that by bringing in a wide variety of backgrounds, he is able to get some unique perspectives.

“What is interesting is when you are dealing with these undergraduates, especially those that are fired up, they come with wild and crazy ideas and what is interesting is that it might now be completely appropriate on its own, but it gives you a new way of looking at it because of their backgrounds,” said Arnold. “What is interesting here is because we don’t have an undergraduate program, for me having students that are coming from training in various backgrounds, you are getting a wide variety of students who are taking contemporary classes and they are learning things and seeing the problems from a different perspective.”

Funding is provided, in part, by National Institutes of Health, Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer, National Science Foundation, and AU Internal Grants Program.

Connor Dobson
Connor Dobson works in the lab with Dr. Rusty Arnold.
Christy Pickering
Christy Pickering works in the lab with Dr. Rusty Arnold.


About the Harrison School of Pharmacy
Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy is ranked among the top 20 percent of all pharmacy schools in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. Fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), the School offers doctoral degrees in pharmacy (Pharm.D.) and pharmaceutical sciences (Ph.D.) while also offering a master’s in pharmaceutical sciences. In 2014, the school adopted the slogan, “Making Medications Work Through Innovative Research, Education and Patient Care.” For more information about the School, please call 334.844.8348 or visit

Last Updated: March 28, 2017