Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Dartmouth Engineering Students Invent Gel for Cancer Treatment

By Anna Fiorentino
June 2013 • Thayer By Degrees: MS

A slow-release gel invented by Dartmouth engineering MS student Ben Cunkelman Th'13, '14 and Robert Collier Th'13 is designed to be mixed with iron oxide nanoparticles to enhance an experimental treatment called magnetic hyperthermia developed by the Dartmouth Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (DCCNE). The postoperative gel already tested on dogs will prevent the tiny nanoparticles (100,000 can fit on a pen tip) from trickling out of a tumor bed and will help the particles target any remaining cancer cells.

Ben Cunkelman
MS candidate Ben Cunkelman Th'13, '14

Collier and Cunkelman filed for a patent for the biodegradable gel made of a water soluble, film-forming starch polymer called pullulan in February, after beginning work on it in Adjunct Professor of Engineering Jack Hoopes' Introduction to Biomedical Engineering course last spring. 

“The idea is to apply the gel onto a tumor margin after surgery and after a certain amount of time the gel will degrade, leaving the nanoparticles on the margin,” says Cunkelman, a dual-degree student from Colby College. “The majority of cancer recurrence following tumor resection occurs at the tumor margin.”

Magnetic Hyperthermia—which for now the DCCNE is pairing with chemotherapy and radiation—injects coated magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles either locally or into the bloodstream so they can make their way to tumors and cancer cells in corners of the body. The tumor is then placed under an alternating magnetic field that activates the nanoparticles, allowing them to heat up, by tumbling, to an optimum temperature to kill the cancer and any other cells containing the nanoparticles.

“The gel itself is basically a supersaturated solution that dissolves rapidly once it interacts with the abundance of water in human tissue,” says Cunkelman. But there is still a lot to learn about the degradation and elution kinetics before the students can begin to better understand the efficacy of the gel. The gel formulation will be tested in a mouse model of surgical bed resection to assess in vivo gel dissolution, how well it enables the nanoparticles to reach the cells, and its heating capability when exposed to the alternating magnetic field. 

“I hope that someday this type of treatment can be effective in treating cancer patients who have to undergo surgery for tumor resection,” says Cunkelman who is now pursuing his MS in biomedical engineering and doing orthopedic implant research in the Dartmouth Biomedical Engineering Center with Professor John Collier:

Tags: engineering in medicine, faculty, research, students

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