Michael Sailor, a UC San Diego chemistry and biochemistry professor, leads a government-funded laboratory where researchers study nano-sized technologies like nanoworms, which swim through the bloodstream honing in on developing tumors. Using this technology, doctors might one day identify early stage tumors in patients too small to detect using conventional methods. These microscopic vehicles also show promise for delivering drugs to cancerous cells.
Question: Your research has been shown to eliminate hurdles associated with nanoparticle toxicity. What challenges remain?
Answer: There is a need for more effective targeting of these (and other) nanoparticles to cancer tissues in the body. We also have a need for the nanomaterial to carry a greater amount of drug. Finally, we need to develop good ways to induce the nanoparticle to release the drug into the tumor "on demand."
Q: How far down the line do you expect these kinds of studies to reach the point of clinical testing?
A: We are hoping to get into the clinic (in very limited studies) within one year.
Q: How are investors feeling about this type of work?
A: There is cautious optimism, I think. Bringing a new drug or medical device into the market is a very big, very expensive endeavor for which very few investors have the stomach, the resources or the patience.
Q: Do you suppose government will play a big role?
A: Yes, it already is. For example, our work is primarily funded by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and by the NSF (National Science Foundation).
Q: Are venture capitalists showing interest?
A: Yes, but very limited. Seems that today most VCs are too busy trying to keep their existing investments afloat. If they have spare money they only want to invest in a proven technology that has already passed all of the major milestones. In my opinion, the VCs of today are playing the role that investment bankers played 15 years ago , they are very risk-averse.
Q: Besides oncology, what other therapeutic areas show potential for nanotech applications?
A: We are very excited about a drug delivery technology we have developed for ophthalmic (eye) applications. There is growing interest in food quality assurance, nutritional supplements, dental hygiene, and cosmetic applications of nanotechnology. We have licensed one of our nanotechnologies to Cellular Bioengineering. It is an anti-counterfeit technology for pharmaceuticals.
We are also working with a small (San Diego) startup named Rhevision Technology, integrating a nanodevice into cell phones. We are working with another (San Diego) startup, Elintrix, on personal air and water quality monitors.
In the area of energy, nanotechnologies are being developed to make cheap, efficient solar cells. Also in the energy area, nanomaterials that can be used in batteries to store electricity more efficiently are in the works. In the area of agriculture, I am aware of at least one company that is developing a catalyst to more efficiently convert nitrogen into ammonia (a major commodity chemical used in the manufacture of fertilizer).
Q: When it comes to personalized medicine, where does nanotech fit in?
A: I believe that in 10 years, consumer devices similar to the home pregnancy test will be available to allow in-home diagnosis and treatment of a range of diseases , from a mild case of the flu to cancer.
Q: Would scientists and engineers need to develop different nanoworms, or would doctors administer different doses of nanoworms, depending on the patient and their tumor profiles?
A: Yes. I think the capability to predict the outcome of a particular therapy based on the patient's genetic code is just around the corner.