USF professor says nanotechnology holds key to curing cancer

He's not a cop. He's a scientist, who says the obscure world of nanotechnology is making a giant impact.
Published July 24 2014

TAMPA — About a dozen researchers are splitting fibers in pursuit of a cure for cancer in a third floor research lab on the edge of the University of South Florida campus.

Every few weeks, they divide the fibers, made from crustaceans, which are the size of a human hair, into millionths.

You can't see these nanofibers or other nanoparticles made in the lab without a high-powered microscope, but they are the seeds of innovations that Shyam Mohapatra says will change our lives.

This is biomedical nanotechnology, and Mohapatra is a pioneer in the field. He is a USF Health professor and research scientist at James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

Mohapatra was among six inventors recently inducted into a new Florida Inventors Hall of Fame. He shares the honor with Thomas Edison and John Gorrie, the father of air conditioning and refrigeration, and Robert Cade, the University of Florida professor who developed Gatorade.

In his lab recently, Mohapatra held a small clear plastic disc with what looked like white confetti inside. The confetti held millions of nanofibers. He pointed out something he is especially excited about.

"This is something we call a tumor on a dish," he said. "We call them tumoroids."

When he adds fibers to a tumor cell, it grows in petri dishes to "become just like a tumor in your body," he said. Cancer research has traditionally applied drugs to cancer cells, rather than the actual tumors. Now, these tumoroids designed in the lab are sold to researchers worldwide.

"We think that this is the technology that can change cancer research," Mohapatra said.

In his office one floor below his labs, several U.S. patents sit on top of his bookshelf. He has been issued 19 and has several pending. He has brought in more than $20 million for research at USF. His work has helped innovate nanoscale diagnostics and therapeutics for cancers, asthma, viral infections and traumatic brain injury.

Each one of his inventions, he said, has a greater purpose.

"Whatever we do has to have some application at the end of the day," he said.

Mohapatra came to Tampa in 1996. He had been working on cures for allergies, which he suffers from. He was studying the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which often leads to allergies and asthma and also kills 5 million babies a year worldwide, he said.

One day as he was coming to work in 1999, he saw an elderly couple staring at a poster outside his lab. The poster was about RSV. Mohapatra explained his idea behind the poster to them, which involved using nanotechnology to make a vaccination. They told him about their grandchild who had died from the virus. Late that night, he got a call from the school's dean. The couple had made a $1 million endowment to further his work. Thus began his work on biomedical nanotechnology.

In the laboratory, Mohapatra introduces his researchers, including several postdoctoral students, and Subhra Mohapatra, whom he calls his collaborator. She takes care of the details, while he is focused on the big picture. He doesn't mention that she is also his wife.

Another project he is working on along with researchers worldwide is developing nanoparticles that target tumors in the body. The nanoparticles can be injected or given orally, intranasally or as a nanocream rubbed into the skin. Once inside the body, the particles "seek and destroy" the tumor.

He has an idea to personalize treatment. When a cancer biopsy is positive, extra cells that are typically thrown out could be used to grow a twin tumoroid in a petri dish. Cancer drugs could be tried out on the twin and within a week, a prescription for the most effective drug could be sent to the patient's doctor.

Typically now, a doctor tries a first line of drugs for a month to see if it works and then a second, or sometimes a cocktail of drugs, he said.

"It completely takes out the guesswork of what drugs to use," Mohapatra said. "That doesn't exist right now."

He tests his research on mice with tumors downstairs in another lab that guests aren't invited to. There were monkeys until a few months ago, he said.

Nanotechnology started in 1997. Biomedical nanotechnology came along later, and is still a teenager, Mohapatra said. He said he's honored to be recognized as a Florida inventor so early in this emerging field. He expects it will extend the average human lifespan by seven or eight years.

"In 20 years or so, people may be living a different life than now," he said.

Contact Elisabeth Parker at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.