Scientists at the National Research Nuclear University are developing a new, alternative cancer treatment that promises to be more effective than chemotherapy while minimizing treatment side effects.
National Research Nuclear University (NRNU) MEPhI has established a new structural division: the Institute of Engineering Physics for Biomedicine. Dr. Andrei Kabashin, its scientific supervisor and Research Director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (Aix-Marseille University), has explained the kinds of professionals the new institution will train. He spoke about the global outlook for Nanotheranostics in an interview with RIA Novosti’s Yulia Osipova.
— Mr. Kabashin, where did the idea come from to spin off an Institute of Engineering Physics for Biomedicine in a separate research and education unit?
— The Institute for Biomedicine is one of the five new structural units that MEPhI has created as part of a new multidisciplinary trend. In the Soviet Union, education was separate from science: institutes provided training, and scientific research was the domain of the RAS. In modern Russia, all the former institutes immediately reorganized into universities, but their essence has not changed: the system of specialized departments and chairs is not fine-tuned for research, only for training students in various fields. The new subdivisions of NRNU MEPhI are actually research institutes that are part of the university. Students still have the opportunity to study there, but they can also participate in funded research projects that can lead to publications in best peer-reviewed journals. In addition, this system allows the university faculty staff to grow professionally while also teaching students.
— Why has biomedicine become the main scientific focus?
— In the last 10 or 15 years, the focus of scientific interest around the world has shifted markedly from physics, which largely developed for defense needs, toward health sciences. People are willing to invest a lot of money in their health or safety. This trend promotes the development of fundamentally new interdisciplinary areas, projects at the junction of the classical sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, and engineering… Where they intersect, their symbiosis generates new technologies, techniques and tools for biomedical applications. Biomedical specialists are in high demand globally. Take, for instance, positron emission tomography: medical education is not enough to use this kind of equipment; it also requires engineering proficiency, but bordering on biomedicine. This niche needs to be filled.
The Obninsk branch of the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute has always had a strong medical department. They are now implementing the idea of combining the existing educational base in Obninsk with a powerful MEPhI resource in nuclear medicine.
— What is modern nuclear medicine?
— It is an enormous domain of high-tech medicine, which uses radionuclide radiation and other sources, and beams of accelerated ionizing particles (such as protons) for the treatment and diagnosis of diseases, particularly cancer. Cancer is our main enemy, as it accounts for more than 13 percent of all deaths. Positron emission tomography is unique because it allows you to register molecular biological changes before organic anatomical changes occur, which is extremely important for the early detection of tumors. At the same time, beta and gamma radiation of certain radionuclides is extremely effective for the selective destruction of cancer cells and the treatment of cancer.
— Everyone is talking about proton therapy these days. Is this really a promising area?
— Yes, there is a real global boom in this type of therapy, these systems are being installed everywhere. Russia is lagging behind a little here, but in Russia we have unique projects that significantly reduce the cost of proton accelerators and the treatment systems that use them. Proton therapy systems are good because they provide a 3D image of the location of the tumor, after which proton sources can act on the tumor with pinpoint accuracy. This is particularly effective in fighting aggressive cancers such as tumors of the brain and eye. In Russia, nuclear medicine has for a long time been present in specific projects, but few people knew about them, because Russian scientists rarely published their studies in leading journals. Russian science developed in isolation.
— Was this one of the reasons why you left the country in the 1990s?
— I was not willing to lose qualifications in my field of research only for the sake of patriotism, despite my love for the motherland. In North America and then in Europe, I was able to integrate with the Western scientific system, and even to help determine its success. Now the main goal for people like me who return to Russia in a particular role is to educate talented young people to work at the current level of global science and as part of the framework of the existing international system. In other words, we need to learn how to play and win within the international scientific field by its rules. Isolation is pointless in modern science. The Chinese were the first to realize that, and so have many others who have by now successfully adapted to the global system. We have a lot of highly skilled professionals and good research projects. In particular, we have made great achievements in nanotechnologies and nanophotonics for biomedical applications. In addition, there are serious projects in designing equipment for positron-electron tomography, and a series of unique radionuclides that are used for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Finally, there are unique achievements in technologies of pattern recognition, decision making, and digital image processing, which can significantly improve the accuracy of cancer diagnosis.
— In what area do you expect the next breakthrough?
— In our opinion, one of the most promising areas is probably a cross between nanotechnology and nuclear medicine projects. The idea is to deliver radionuclides to tumors without irradiating other tissues. The delivery of radionuclides is the main problem of nuclear medicine. They do not last for more than two or three hours, but it is necessary to make sure that they do not just spend that time in the blood circulation, but that they reach the tumor precisely. It is at the juncture of nanotechnology and nuclear medicine techniques where we expect the next breakthrough.
— How can this be achieved on a technical level?
— Here is one example. Take any biocompatible and biodegradable nanoparticle, for example, of silicon, which is one of the safest inorganic materials, and plant a radionuclide on it, such as rhenium-188. The particle delivers it to the site of the tumor. The radionuclide cures the tumor and then the particle dissolves and is excreted via renal clearance, with urine, without any side effects. This example involves the use of nanoparticles as vehicles for the delivery of radiopharmaceutical drugs to destroy cancer tumors.
Our global goal, Nanotheranostics, is a combination of diagnosis and therapy on the nanometer scale. We expect that this method will destroy cancer cells and tumors with subcellular precision, ensured by the small size of the active area around the nanoparticles, while the nanoparticles themselves will withdraw from the body after the diagnostic and/or therapeutic procedures without any adverse effects. We use nanotechnology to ensure the safest possible process of diagnosis and therapy.
Because nanoparticles are applied locally, we will be able to cure cancer, while the body will not suffer any side effects. Unfortunately, chemotherapy and radiation therapy often destroy everything indiscriminately, and people die not from cancer, but from the effects of this treatment. Nanotheranostics is a way to avoid that.