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A team of UCF researchers just landed a $1.3 million National Institute of Health grant to crack a problem cancer-patients worry about and that specialist struggle with almost daily.

They are developing a promising technique to deliver a cancer-fighting drug to cancer cells that escape tumors and move through the body to spread cancer. These metastasized cells are often a death sentence for patients, because they spread to critical organs like the brain, liver and bones. There currently is no sure-fire way to track all the moving cells and to stop their spread. But the University of Central Florida scientists may have found a possible answer.

Dr. Annette Khaled, a cancer and immunology specialist at the UCF College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, discovered that peptide CT20 kills cancer cells and is particularly effective at killing fleeing cells. UCF colleague Dr. J. Manuel Perez, who specializes in chemistry and nanotechnology, has created a system that safely envelopes Dr. Khaled’s killing agent, tracks escaping cells, then locks onto those cells and releases the CT20 cancer killing agent only to the infected cells. Then Dr. Khaled’s CT20 starts killing the cells, which then become unstable. When the cells become unstable, they detach form the healthy ones and die.

The technique is promising enough to have caught the NIH’s attention earning the scientists the very competitive grant money. The funds will help the team determine how much of the peptide must be injected and how often to kill metastatic cancer cells.

“Putting an end to metastatic cancer as a life-threatening disease by combining two individual discoveries into one powerful therapeutic combination is the goal that drives our research efforts,” Dr. Khaled said from her lab at the Burnett School of Biomedical Studies at Lake Nona.

Dr. Perez agrees and is excited to see their work push forward.

“Our research is geared toward prostate cancer but I hope it can be transitional, and the technique can be used for other cancers. More work needs to be done before we can say that this technology would be helpful to cancer patients, but we hope that this new approach would someday result in the discovery of novel and clinical translational therapeutics to treat cancer” Dr. Perez said from his lab at the UCF NanoScience Technology Center in Research Park.

The two began this collaboration 2 years ago because they saw the need to work together and used their combined expertise in cancer biology and immunology (Dr. Khaled) and chemistry and nanotechnology (Dr. Perez) to make more effective and quicker advances,. And that means potentially saving more lives if the results of this project are successful.

How it works

Dr. Khaled’s peptide causes the detachment and death of certain types of cancer cells by promoting mitochondrial aggregation and cytoskeletal disruption. Dr. Perez’s lab previously developed polymer-based nanoparticles to encase a variety of injectable drugs to protect them as they are delivered to the body. To direct the nanoparticles to the right place, the surface of the nanoparticles are decorated with tumor-targeting compounds that specifically bind to the cancer cells. Once the nanoparticle arrives, it enters the cancer cells, dissolves its protective casing and releases the CT20 peptide. The peptides then render the cytoskeleton or the “bones” of the cancer cell unstable, so cancer cells detach from each other and their surrounding tissues and die.

While cancerous tumors can often be removed surgically or through chemotherapy and radiation, finding and treating cells that have migrated to distant sites in the body is challenging. The new UCF technology offers several advantages – the nanoparticles include an imaging component that allows them to be tracked using the molecular imaging technology routinely used to image tumors. That means scientists and physicians can be sure that the nanoparticle is delivering the CT20 peptide to the right spot. And by targeting individual cancer cells, patients can avoid the devastating effects of chemotherapy that kill cancer and healthy cells alike.

Dr. Khaled joined UCF in 2002 and is an associate professor. She has several degrees including a Ph.D in molecular genetics and immunology from the University of Florida. Before joining UCF she served as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Perez joined UCF in 2005 and is an associate professor with joint appointments in the Burnett school and NanoScience Technology Center. He has Ph.D in chemistry from Boston University among other degrees. Previously he had a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Molecular Imaging Research at MGH-Harvard Medical School in Boston.