A New Dimension to Drug Delivery

Dr. Arnold with graduate students in the lab Dr. Rusty Arnold with graduate students in the lab.

February 19, 2018

AUBURN, Alabama – When fighting cancer, the challenge is almost always the same. Identify the tumor and battle it with combinations of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or other biological treatments. With many cancer patients, the battle can take just as much a toll on the body as the cancer itself as radiation and chemotherapy can have adverse effects on otherwise healthy cells in the body.

What if doctors were able to develop a personalized treatment plan, specific to a patient’s tumor, with a way to deliver a drug treatment directly to it? A research team including the Harrison School of Pharmacy’s Dr. Rusty Arnold and Dr. Peter Panizzi are working on just that.

In work funded by the National Institutes of Health through Huntsville, Alabama-based CFD Research Corporation, Dr. Arnold is a co-principal investigator with Dr. Elizabeth Lipke, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering in Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. The two are working on a project titled, "Validation of 3D Human Tissue Culture Systems that Mimic the Tumor Microenvironment."

Working together, CFD Research, Arnold and Lipke are developing chips with CFD’s SynVivo platform that have vascular channels lined with blood vessels and tumor compartments that support 3D tumor growth. This allows the investigators how examine how tumors grow and invade other compartments in the chip and, most importantly, how they respond to cancer different drugs and treatment schedules.


One of the SynVivo chips showing the tumor, vascular network and ports to the tumor
A sample SynVivo chip taken from their recent publication in Scientific Reports, showing the tumors being studied and the vascular network surrounding it. Scientific Reports, Vol 8, Article number: 3171 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-21075-9

The collaborative environment fostered on campus has allowed Arnold and Lipke to team together with private industry to devise a novel approach to something that affects millions of people a year.

“The interdisciplinary nature of our collaborations is critical to performing these studies and obtaining competitive grant funding,” said Arnold. “The treatment of cancer, like many diseases, is complex and requires investigators with expertise along the entire drug development path, including basic, applied and clinical researchers. Teams of investigators with complementary expertise are better able to identify and solve challenges that inevitably arise.”

In this work, Arnold brings expertise in drug delivery, cancer biology and animal models of breast and prostate cancer, along with being able to comment and assist with designing studies to evaluate tumor growth and metastases. Lipke’s chemical engineering background drives the tissue engineering, preparing 3D single and multicellular systems for evaluation, examining various substrates that support cellular growth and movement and expertise in performing biophysical measurements on tumor system.

The chips utilized in this project are showing they have a better ability to mimic tumors and permit investigators to examine what effect combinations of drugs and nanomedicines have on them.

From a personalized medicine standpoint, these chips could allow clinicians to examine the response of a patient’s own tumor, and look at specific treatments that are tailored specifically for them. This personalized medicine approach is believed to improve treatment outcomes and limit patients being exposed to treatments that they are less likely to respond to.

“For my lab specifically, this system would allow us to better understand how nanomedicines interact with various tumors so that we can engineer systems that will better delivery drugs and improve anticancer activity, reduce toxicity and improve patient outcomes,” said Arnold.

One of the major challenges in treating tumors is the genetic variability they have. There are growing numbers of genetically-modified tumors available, but traditional models do not offer the natural growth environment found clinically and are poorly mimic how tumors adapt and migrate. Having multicellular 3D models in these chips allows investigators to observe a tumor in an environment that correlates more to a patient’s body.

Additionally, for Arnold, he has the ability to look at different size nanoparticle delivery systems in targeting the tumors. Cancer drugs can be extremely toxic to the body, but these nanomedicines can potentially carry large amounts of a drug directly to the tumor, targeting specific cancer cells, with the goal of reducing toxicity to other areas of the body.

“As we learn more about the role of the tumor microenvironment, this will allow clinicians to better diagnose different types of cancer and investigators the ability to optimize nanomedicines that improve the delivery of individual or combinations of drugs,” said Arnold.

Work on this project has also been facilitated by the opening of the Harrison School of Pharmacy’s new Pharmaceutical Research Building. The new labs have allowed teams of investigators from Drs. Arnold and Lipke research groups, along with other collaborators like Dr. Panizzi and Dr. Allan David (Ginn College of Engineering), to get together.

“The open research space at the Pharmaceutical Research Building has facilitated collaborations with Dr. Panizzi’s and my group and investigators across campus,” said Arnold. “Dr. Lipke and Dr. David have had students come to the Pharmaceutical Research Building to work alongside my students and use some of our recently-acquired equipment. These interactions are providing our students with greater insights into related fields and promoting a collaborative research environment.”

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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. For more information about the School, please call 334.844.8348 or visit http://pharmacy.auburn.edu.

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Last Updated: February 20, 2018