Sanford-Burnham Distinguished Professor Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., sits in his office at UC Santa Barbara and ponders the relationship between science and science fiction. He is discussing Star Trek’s sophisticated hand-held medical devices and all they could do for patients.
“Ideally, you would like to have a device like Dr. McCoy’s that could both diagnose and treat,” says Dr. Ruoslahti. “I think eventually we will have devices like small MRI machines that can do just that.”
Though this level of technology is still many years off, Dr. Ruoslahti is leading projects that might seem like science fiction. A former Sanford-Burnham president and CEO, Dr. Ruoslahti established the Institute’s connection to UCSB in 2006. He is building on his earlier discovery that a peptide (a piece of protein) called RGD is attracted to cell attachment proteins called integrins. What makes this so important is that tumor blood vessels express RGD-binding integrins, allowing researchers to custom-make peptides that home in on tumors. Recently, the Ruoslahti lab created a new version of the peptide, called iRGD, which homes in on tumors and also makes them more susceptible to treatment.
Taking that a step further, Dr. Ruoslahti has been collaborating with engineers at UC Santa Barbara to build medicine-containing nanoparticles, like the micelle pictured above. By combining these two technologies, researchers hope to create therapeutic nanoparticles that home directly to a cancer and release their therapeutic payloads inside the tumor.
“We have succeeded in putting targeting molecules on nanoparticle drugs and have shown that they are more effective and less toxic,” says Dr. Ruoslahti.