Finding cancer with sound: the development of nanoparticles to deliver light-to-sound converting agents

“Here I am!” -Cancer

Wouldn’t it be nice if cancer could simply yell out to let us know where it is, and how much of it is there? Anna St. Lorenz, a 4th year PhD student in the College of Pharmacy, is working on just that.

Anna volunteering at Brain Day at OMSI science museum.

Anna’s path to scientific research began when she was 8 years old, on a farm, with some chickens and a candle-lit microscope. Anna spent much of her childhood becoming familiar with the local ecology, as well as the Mendelian laws of genetic inheritance that applied to her family’s chicken breeding. However, her first taste of research was in Death Valley. With funding provided through Smith College associated religious programs, Anna studied arsenic-eating-microbes, but thanks to some giant spiders and allergies, Anna decided field research wasn’t for her and moved to a hospital setting.

In college, Anna’s scientific education expanded further through multiple internships and unique educational opportunities at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and OHSU. Anna obtained a B.A. in Biology with a minor in Neuroscience from Smith College. Receiving a B.A. rather than a B.S. meant that Anna’s science education was interdisciplinary, and incorporated disciplines such as history and the fine arts. Anna’s love of the arts still persists as she frequently paints and creates “bioart,” which she uses as a means to inform and involve the community on her scientific endeavors. She commonly uses her work with her husband, Grey St. Lorenz, in presentations and has previously collaborated with artists in upstate New York for work on display at local universities. 

Bioart by Anna. Nanoparticles taken up by an endosome, that then create a pore in the endosome’s membrane to release their payload. It is done in the style of Starry Night and the nanoparticle’s payload matches up with the stars.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Anna received a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While finishing up her Master’s degree, Anna moved to Boston and started working at MIT as a nanoparticle research technician within the Langer Lab. It was at MIT that she learned about a new nanoparticle-specific program being implemented in the OSU College of Pharmacy. This program is now about four years new and Anna has been at the front line of pioneering this program for future graduate students. In addition to navigating a new program and coping with the regular difficulties of being a graduate student, this OSU nanoparticle program is actually based at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland. Although challenging at times, as a graduate student researching cancer therapeutic technology, OHSU is great place to be.

Anna and the Taratula group.

In this program, Anna works with the Taratula group on ovarian cancer diagnosis. As a disease that is traditionally hard to detect at early stages, it is often only after the cancer has spread to other areas of the body in later stages that diagnosis is able to be made. This metastasis results in a worse prognosis and decreased survival rates. To this end, Anna and other researchers and medical professionals are developing nanoparticles to deliver various iterations of imaging agents. Anna’s role in this process is to design more specific nanoparticles to carry various agents through the bloodstream and allow for specific staining of cancerous tissue.

Bioart by Anna and Grey St. Lorenz demonstrating a nanoparticle (blue) encapsulating a compound (red) and adorned with targeting antibodies (green).

Have you ever used facewash with textured particles in it?  Nanoparticles are 1/1000th of that size and are used to envelop or otherwise transport compounds throughout the body and deliver them to more specified regions. This technology can be applied to a variety of compounds to enhance their delivery needs. Solubility issues, tissue or disease specificity, PH, heat, and enzyme specific release are all areas that nanoparticle science delves into to address patient care. So now, the imaging agent, inside of its tiny carrier, can circulate through the body and find the cancerous tissue it’s designed to target.

As tumors are characteristically disorganized tissue whose unregulated growth demands increased nutrients, they develop a leaky vasculature  which makes it easier for molecules to permeate the tissue. Once the nanoparticle reaches the tumor, it is able to take advantage of the enhanced permeability of tumors to infiltrate and label the cancer cells. An important characteristic of the works is that the compounds use near-infrared (near-IR) light, which can be administered to excite the delivered agents in a spectral range that is largely unaffected by organic tissue. These agents were specifically screened for their ability to convert this light to acoustic/sounds waves that are detectable by ultrasound imaging.  This process allows for an enhanced detection and characterization of ovarian cancer – opening the door for effective screening and improved monitoring of this devastating disease.

Join us Sunday November 4th at 7PM on 88.7FM, or listen live, to learn more about Anna’s exciting journey to graduate school, bioart, sound-making cancer, and nanoparticles.

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