Cancer researchers in Frederick are forming new partnerships with big drug companies, using the science of incredibly tiny particles to make more effective cancer medicines.
The Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory is housed in the Advanced Technology Research Facility at Riverside Park in Frederick. The nanotechnology lab is run by the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, which operates under a contract with the National Cancer Institute.
The nanotechnology lab’s strengths have historically been in “characterizing” nanoparticles. Characterizing in this usage is a broad term that includes measuring the size of nanoparticles, how they behave in vitro in a lab setting, how they might behave inside an animal or human body, and generally the properties they exhibit when interacting with cells. In this way, drug companies developing nanoparticles to diagnose or fight cancer can know more about the potential efficacy, or toxicity, of their nanoparticles. Some of those nanoparticles are the key active ingredients in cancer-fighting drugs.
“We have 10 years’ experience characterizing every type of nanomaterial you can think of,“ senior principal scientist Steve Stern said. The goal of the lab is to “characterize” or describe and measure a nanoparticle within one year of submission.
But now, the lab is expanding into helping to formulate drugs.
The lab is doing that by partnering with drug companies through Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, also called CRADAs.
“This [agreement] is just the mechanism to do collaborative work with companies,” Stern said.
The nanotechnology lab is currently working with Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
By partnering with drug companies, the lab can take a closer look at cancer drugs and other medicines while they’re in development. Tinkering with nanoparticles at the earlier stage can help the company determine the best dosage, and thus lower the risk of toxicity.
The agreements are not meant to be profitable for the Frederick National Lab. The main advantage of these agreements are real-world experience for the lab’s researchers and experts.
“These CRADAs allow us to be relevant,” Stern said.
At the nanotechnology lab, researchers use a variety of tools to work with nanoparticles.
“Dynamic light-scattering is the workhorse in our lab,” principal scientist Jeff Clogston said.
The measurement tool uses light to track the random motion of particles in a solution and thus determine how big the particles are. Since the size of a nanoparticle can give clues to its function, measuring size is paramount.
The lab’s technology can measure particles a few nanometers across to hundreds of nanometers across, Clogston said. By comparison, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
One stainless-steel machine, used to make nanoemulsions, looks much like an espresso machine, but has syringes instead of a dispensing nozzle.
“It looks like something you might find at Starbucks, but we use it for nanoformulation,” Stern said.
Piotr Grodzinski is director of the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Nanotechnology Research. He expects more agreement-based partnerships, like the one between the lab and AstraZeneca, in the future.
“With nanomedicine maturing, more and more companies are being interested in this mode of treatment,” Grodzinski said in an email. “They seek partnerships with experienced entities, and [Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory] is a natural choice.”
Since nanomedicines are applicable outside of cancer treatment, Grodzinski said the lab is also discussing opening up their capabilities to “concepts beyond cancer.”