Inside Rensselaer
* Pankaj Karande

Pankaj Karande

Creating Powerful New Tools for Fighting Cancer

One of the human body’s most powerful defensive tools, the blood-brain barrier is a chemical labyrinth that prevents toxins and viruses in the bloodstream from reaching the brain. This foolproof security system, however, limits the ability of physicians to deliver drugs directly to the brain, making it difficult to treat brain tumors. Researchers at Rensselaer are endeavoring to solve this problem by investigating new methods for bypassing the blood-brain barrier and combating the spread of brain cancer.

The research team, led by Pankaj Karande, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is particularly interested in developing treatments for diffuse malignant glioma, a lethal type of brain cancer for which there is currently no cure. He recently won a $100,000 grant from the Goldhirsh Foundation to further his study into this important topic.

“Nature designed the blood-brain barrier to protect us from harm, and it’s very good at its job. When you attempt to treat patients with brain ailments, the blood-brain barrier recognizes most drugs as foreign molecules and keeps them out.” — Pankaj Karande

“There are a number of good drugs available for treating glioma, but our problem is that getting any drug into the brain is a huge challenge,” Karande said. “Nature designed the blood-brain barrier to protect us from harm, and it’s very good at its job. When you attempt to treat patients with brain ailments, the blood-brain barrier recognizes most drugs as foreign molecules and keeps them out. We’re trying to develop a method to elegantly, safely, and reproducibly open up the blood-brain barrier, so we can introduce drugs into the brain.”

The blood-brain barrier is made up of protein-lined cells, which are layered together not unlike Velcro, Karande said. Generally, the only molecules that can pass through the barrier are certain nutrients and essential vitamins. His team is looking for a chemical “wedge” to pry a hole between layers, just large enough for drug molecules to breach the barrier and enter the brain. The hole would only stay open for a very short time, and then repair itself, thus posing very little risk of damage to the brain in the long term.

Using a combination of computer simulations, in-vitro modeling, molecular modeling, and microarray technology, the research team is designing new peptides — short chains of amino acids — that can serve as the needed “chemical wedge.”

“Currently, the best therapy for brain surgery involves removing the part of the brain that is malignant or tumorous. In the case of diffuse glioma, however, the cancer is so widespread that you can’t remove it — you’d have to remove, effectively, the entire brain,” Karande said. “If we are successful in breaching the blood-brain barrier and delivering drugs straight to the brain, it could have a tremendous impact in the fight against cancer, as well as other chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.”

For more information on Karande’s research at Rensselaer, visit www.eng.rpi.edu/chme/faculty_details.cfm?facultyID =karanp&type=research.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 13, September 10, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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