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Chemistry Professor Earns NSF Grant for Cancer Research

Peng Zhang studies nanoparticles to make photodynamic therapy—a potential tumor-blasting technology—a more efficient cancer treatment.

Date: 11/22/2010
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Peng Zhang, a new associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, is the recipient of a $299,794 National Science Foundation grant for his research “Infrared excitable nanoparticle-based photosensitizers for targeted photodynamic therapy.”

Your research involves photodynamic therapy. Can you explain to us what that means?

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) involves three components: light of appropriate wavelengths, oxygen and photosensitizers (so-called PDT drugs). Under light illumination, photosensitizers act as catalysts to convert oxygen molecules into singlet oxygen, a type of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Singlet oxygen is very reactive, and would cause oxidative damage to the cells and/or bacteria nearby, thus displaying the antitumor and/or antibacterial property.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Peng Zhang.
Associate Professor of Chemistry Peng Zhang

Compared to other treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, how effective might photodynamic therapy be in the fight against cancer?

PDT is a relatively new treatment, compared to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It is also not as widely practiced. Clinically, most PDT treatments are so far limited to skin cancer or cancers very close to surface, because visible light does not penetrate well through tissues. Light of longer wavelengths, such as far red and infrared light, can penetrate tissues better; yet they may not have enough energy to activate the photosensitizers.

This grant allows you to design, engineer and test photosensitizers for these treatments. What exactly will these mechanisms do?

In this grant, we propose to develop photosensitizers that can be activated by infrared light, making use of a type of nanoparticles with unique optical properties. These nanoparticles can convert infrared light of a certain wavelengths into visible light (blue or green). By integrating these nanoparticles with some photosensitizing molecules into a type of hybrid photosensitizers, we expect that the photosensitizers, which otherwise need blue or green light illumination, can be activated by infrared light. We will also include targeting elements into the design so that the nanoparticles-based photosensitizers would be specific to the cancer cells.

What do you hope to accomplish with this research?

We hope to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach, evaluate the efficacy of these nanoparticles-based photosensitizers under infrared illumination. We also need to investigate the cytotoxicity of the nanoparticles-based photosensitizers themselves without light illumination, to assess the potential side effects.

What are the wider implications?

The advancement of PDT drug development would help improve the use of PDT as a cancer treatment, especially when in combination with adjuvant therapies. This study will focus on improving the tissue penetration, the photochemical activity and the targeted therapeutic nature of photosensitizers.

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Department of Chemistry Receives $1.2M for Lab Renovations
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