Erkki Ruoslahti, a distinguished professor at UCSB’s Burnham Institute for Medical Research, has been awarded a $2.8 million grant from the Dept. of Defense to research the use of nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery in the fight against breast cancer.

Ruoslahti received the grant as part of a collaboration with UCSD professor and Nobel Laureate Roger Tsien and Shiladitya Sengupta from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Their teams have been working together to develop improved detection and treatment methods for breast cancer.

Ruoslahti’s section of the project involves producing homing peptides that can be attached to drug-delivering nanoparticles, allowing the compounds to penetrate assigned cells while ignoring surrounding tissue.

“Dr. Tsien and I are developing targeting agents — probes that can direct the nanoparticles to the desired target,” Ruoslahti said. “The targeting makes more drug go into cancer tissue, [so] then less of the drug shows up in regular tissues, [so we can] preferentially direct the drug into the tumor.”

In a press release, Ruoslahti said the traditional methods for treating breast cancer — surgery and chemotherapy — have been known to cause complications from invasive procedures and drug side-effects, but he believes that nanotechnology-based methods can provide solutions for these problems.

According to Ruoslahti, the selective targeting boosts the drug’s efficacy and reduces side effects.

“Targeting can concentrate the therapeutic agent in the tumor, improving the efficacy of the treatment and reducing damage to healthy tissues,” Ruoslahti said in a press release.

Ruoslathi said it will be a long time before the targeting system is ready for human use, but a few nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems have been used in clinics.

“It has been noted that there are already, in the clinic, nanoparticle drugs that work,” Ruoslahti said. “There is a nanoparticle that delivers Taxol better than the regular drug. … Now what we can do [in the future] is put a homing device on already-approved drugs to make them better.”

Ruoslahti’s team is currently working on a contrast agent using the nanoparticle technology that can give doctors a clearer, more precise image of suspicious lesions, allowing them to not only detect tumors, but also receive molecular information on their development.

In August, Ruoslahti, along with fellow Burnham Institute researchers Tambet Teesalu, Kazuki N. Sugahara and Venkata Ramana Kotamraju, published a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on a cell entry system they discovered nicknamed “CendR” (pronounced sender), which can provide scientists with a controllable entryway into cells.

In the future, Ruoslahti’s team hopes to utilize the CendR research to produce targeting peptides for cancer cells as well as develop inhibitors to block viruses from entering healthy cells.